Laurie Colwin’s creamed spinach with jalapeno peppers, above, is the best thing I have ever cooked.
Everyone who has actually tried to cook from Home Cooking and More Home Cooking reports that Colwin’s wild enthusiasm for her favorite foods doesn’t always translate to happy cooking results — something that I had suspected early on in Home Cooking, when Colwin tries to convince the reader to incorporate fermented black beans into yam cakes. And as if her own idiosyncratic palate wasn’t enough of a hindrance, Colwin was writing these celebrations of home cooking during the fat-phobic 1980s, and was also at some point was told by a doctor to avoid salt (SALT!) entirely, a proscription that she seems to have forced on her guests.
All that being said, though: no one has ever written more contagiously about her passion for food and cooking. Colwin’s readers typically feel that they have no choice but to attempt her recipes, even if they suspect that the results might be disastrous. After all, some of Colwin’s funniest and best essays — “Repulsive Dinners: A Memoir” and “Stuffed Breast of Veal: A Bad Idea” among them — are written less in the triumphalist “I ate such a delicious thing, let me evoke that experience for you” mode that can, in large doses, be the most grating form of food writing, and more in the spirit of living and learning. This is why some people don’t love, say, Amanda Hesser — so much food writing is in the unleavened “I made something so delicious,” mode, which conveys little of the sense that one’s cooking style is refined via trial and grievous, hilarious error. ( I love Amanda Hesser, triumphalist though she may be, especially the recipe for lemon sablés in Cooking for Mr. Latte.)
And on that note, actually, let me return to the ostensible topic of this post, which is, I made something so delicious.
I did tweak the original recipe slightly; it calls for frozen spinach and evaporated milk and buttered bread crumbs, and I used fresh spinach, half and half, and panko. The first two substitutions were probably unnecessary— though there is something mossy and dank about frozen spinach that I don’t love, I warmed to the idea of it at some point during the half hour that Ruth and I spent cleaning and draining and chopping and re-draining the completely bonkers amount of fresh spinach — about 8 pounds! — that works out to be equivalent to the amount in a 10 oz. package of frozen. Probably a Cook’s Illustrated-style test kitchen would conclude that there’s only a whisper of difference in the finished product, and you save five or six bucks by using frozen. The difference between evaporated milk and half and half also seems likely to be indistinguishable in a casserole. But panko browns to a delicate crunchy crisp and if you don’t have stale homemade bread lying around ready to be crumbed in the food processor, it’s a much better alternative than storebought bread crumbs.
Everything else, though, is exactly as Colwin described: gently cooking four tablespoons of butter and flour together, being careful not to let the mixture brown, then adding diced onion and garlic, then the cup of reserved spinach-water the 1/2 cup of evaporated milk or half and half, then 6 oz of cubed monterey jack and a can of diced jalapenos (I used Hatch brand fire-roasted ones, which claim to be “hot” but are not in the slightest and for this recipe that’s just fine). At this point you have something that would be really great to dip tortilla chips into.
Then you add the spinach and adjust the seasoning (we added a bit of lemon zest to cut the richness slightly), turn it into a buttered gratin dish, top it with the panko, dot with slivers of butter and bake it — Colwin says for 45 minutes at 300 but we had the oven around 350 because we were simultaneously roasting new potatoes in the fat that had dripped off a slow-roasted chicken, and that worked fine.
The resulting dish is creamy but not cloying; something about it — maybe the jalapenos — makes it possible, despite its richness, to eat in large quantities. It would be a popularity-sealing thing to bring to a potluck or an ideal dish to make for someone who is sad or sick and has temporarily lost interest in food.