It is unclear to me how January 1st became some marker for a brand new year, particularly living here in the Midwest. All those resolutions, made giddily (or ponderously) the night previous, just inebriated enough to not notice the freezing temperatures outside. All these grand plans, fueled by this energy found solely in the idea that the year has flipped from 2012 to 2013. And then in the quite literal cold light of dawn, what you really want to do is curl up under that comforter on the couch with a cup of tea and watch reruns on television. Which is pretty much what you did the day before. You might get roused again around Groundhog’s Day, along with that lying rodent who relies solely on the random chance of sun being in the sky to tell us if we can look forward to a time sans bleak grey skies and naked brown trees. In recent winters with so little pretty blanketing snow, it just seems worse.
But now… now… it is April. In the city as I walk along, there are sprigs of green pushing out from the layers of brown detritus that have been slowly decomposing all winter. Crocus are springing free, brazenly waving bright purples and yellows at the weather that still dumps into freezing at night. The tighter unfurled blooms in the middle are a floral middle finger to the cold. They are here. And with that, I say… spring is the time for resolutions, for fresh starts. And so it goes with this blog. It is spring. To put it bluntly, I want this to become something more. When I figure out what the specific definition of “more” is, it’ll be great. But for now I’m just saying “more” as in “more than once a month. The new calendar widget I installed has shamed me. So here it is. The first entry of an increasing deluge, using a brand new interface (that still bears some functionality tweaking). On the subject of spinach, so verdant, green, and full of life. Just ask Popeye. He burst with superpowers every time he sucked down a can of it. Of course, I could never go near a can of it. EW. I just like it fresh.
So now the Patsy Cline is playing, the coffee is steaming in a mug next to my keyboard, and here we go.
Spinach. Eggs. Two ingredients foreign to no one. I’m sure this could somehow be the opening to Eggs Florentine or some such thing, but this is far, far simpler. I have a lovely little book written by Judith Jones, the editor for the original “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” It is called “The Pleasures of Cooking for One.” Some out there might find this a depressing thought, but don’t. Why? Sometimes you find yourself alone. Does this mean you deserve inferior food? To spend the evening meal with a beer and a bag of potato chips, noisily sucking the excess salt off your fingers, bemoaning the state of your solo moment? Absolutely not. Unless you really want that beer and potato chips. This cookbook kicked off a wave of inspiration and variations on things I could cook for me, toute seule. Simple things that felt fancy and complicated, deserving of a placemat.
Enter the baked egg. I had never in my life encountered a baked egg. Having now eaten many, I feel a bit cheated. There is an absolute perfect smooth texture, the yolk elevated to the status of culinary velvet, that feels completely luxurious. From an egg. A standard egg. I could always bake an egg on its own and eat it, but that doesn’t seem a full proper meal, or any basis for experimentation. So I decided to bake the egg on a bed of spinach. Fresh spinach, cooked down into a brilliant green mass, ready to impart its green goodness. The first time I did this, I was merry, triumphantly smug in cooking down and devouring an entire bunch of spinach all by myself. How self-righteously healthy! Except for that part where about a quarter of the way in the inside of my mouth began to feel like a chalk mine. If there are chalk mines. It felt dry and tacky while eating juicy greens. What the hell? I engaged my nerd glasses (which happen to be my normal ones) and discovered that spinach has this element to it known as oxalic acid, and that particular acid is what makes solo spinach taste as if you have ground some fine sidewalk chalk into your dish. But of course, there are ways to alleviate the dry ways of this sly little acid. Lemon. Or bacon. Oh yes, that fetishized ingredient of the moment, it had more than a cosmetic purpose. On the day I discovered this, it was in one of those endless long streaks of grey that plagued Chicago this year. I wanted that comforter on the couch. Lemon just seemed like it would mock me with promises of sunshine. So of course I went with bacon. And cream. And romano cheese. Because dammit, it just needed to happen.
The bacon version:
For one dish… a single slice of bacon is cut into small dice and cooked until it has become sizzling crispy red bits of porcine tastiness. They are removed to rest for a bit, most of the fat is poured off, then a good 3/4 of a bunch of spinach is dumped in with a saucy minced clove of garlic and cooked down, taking a few moments to appreciate the exact shade of brilliant green it turns. The bacon is returned, some cream splashed in, the mixture turned out into a small baking dish, and two eggs cracked on top. And some grated romano cheese, just to add to the decadence. A quick round in the oven, and… oh my. The velvet of the rich yolk, the earthy green of the spinach punctuated with sharp bites of salty bacon, the perfume of garlic lacing around all of it and wafting up the nose… ahhhh…
But then one deceptively sunny day I wanted to taunt spring into being. It was a day for bright flavors. Enter the lemon.
The Greeks have it right. Spinach and lemon are a brilliant combination. A bit of olive oil was heated, the spinach thrown in, the whole of a lemon squeezed over the brilliant mass, and at the last possible moment, garlic thrown in. Because there must always be garlic. It just seems to make sense. The same baking dish was deployed, two more eggs cracked, left unadorned by any cheese. Again into the heat, and this time upon their exit… oh such beauty! Where the bacon version with cheese was tasty, it was not the most cosmetically pleasing thing. It would have been disgraced on any cooking show, since it did not adhere to societal standards of culinary beauty. I still love it, but I digress. This is about the lemon version. The eggs emerged looking shiny and impossibly perfect, almost candy versions of themselves. The rich buttery flavors of the egg whirled with the bursts of citrus and spinach, redolent of summertime, creating something both comforting and reviving all at once. I’m sure this would have been kicked off of a show, but I do not care. It was delicious.
In the end… I can not decide which I like more. I am fairly sure it will be dependent on mood. Today as the sun beams through my window and crocuses continue to push up through the defrosting earth, the lemon sounds absolutely ravishing. But just wait until the first cold spring storm, and bacon will be craved. I guess I will just have to keep making it to see which prevails.
Baked Spinach and Eggs Two Ways
note: this is just for one person, or it could be two as a side dish, or you could just multiply it up. There is really not much to it.
Roughly 3/4 bunch of spinach, thoroughly rinsed, destemmed and torn into large pieces, but don’t dry them, leave the moisture on
1 garlic clove, minced
kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
for the bacon variation:
1 slice bacon, cut into small dice
1 Tbsp. cream (or more, as desired)
fresh grated romano cheese
for the lemon variation:
1 Tbsp. olive oil
the zest of half a lemon, finely zested
the juice of one lemon
In either case, preheat the oven to 350°. Lightly butter a small baking dish and set aside.
for the bacon variation:
In a large skillet, cook the bacon over medium heat until almost all the fat has rendered and the bacon is to your desired level of crispiness. Remove the bacon to a paper-towel lined plate to drain, and drain off all but about 1 1/2 tsp. of the bacon fat (you need this to counter the oxalic acid, so live a little). Toss in the spinach and cook down until it has all turned brilliant green, throw in the garlic and cook for about 30 more seconds until it becomes fragrant, add in the splash of cream and some salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat, add back in the bacon pieces, and transfer to the waiting baking dish. Make two small wells in the spinach with the back of a spoon and crack one egg into each of the indentations. Sprinkle your grated cheese over the top and slide into the oven and bake for 15-18 minutes (until the yolk is set.)
for the lemon variation:
In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat, then toss in the spinach, cooking down until it is a lurid green (because it’s a little more lurid when not tinged by bacon fat), then add in the lemon juice, lemon zest, and garlic and cook for just 30 seconds more, until the heady fragrance makes you long for a far away sunny beach. Salt and pepper to taste. Transfer it all to the waiting baking dish. Make two small wells in the spinach with the back of the spoon and crack one egg into each of the indentations. Slide into oven and bake for 15-18 minutes.