Food

Squeeze Your Leaves: The One Step That’ll Change Your Spinach-Cooking Game

BY Ari LeVaux TIMEMay 26, 2022 PRINT

I love buying spinach at the farmers market in spring. There is great variety to be found, from dainty babies to long-stemmed beefsteaks. Each vendor has different-looking spinach, and each farmer has a different way to cook it.

I got a good one recently from a farmer friend who told me about a Chinese-style spinach and noodle dish. She boils the spinach and then plunges it into cold water, as one does with vegetables. Next, she squeezes the spinach, pressing out all the water.

In following her lead at home, I was amazed by how small a ball of squeezed spinach you get from a large bunch of fresh. This increases the density of the leaves, such that a small amount can have a sizeable impact on flavor.

My spinach-squeezing associate chops up this extra-dense ball and adds it to noodles in a broth flavored with soy sauce, chopped garlic, sesame oil, and shrimp paste. She serves it with chile sauce and ranch dressing.

Spring Experiments

Ever since, I’ve been squeezing a lot of spinach—especially the big, juicy leaves of full-grown plants. I don’t even bother with baby spinach, which lacks the gravitas, fiber, and earthy flavor of mature leaves. As late spring is the best time to gorge on spinach, I began using squeezed spinach in all of my and my friends’ favorite spinach dishes.

I decided to use it to make a batch of saag paneer, the Indian dish of greens and cheese. Usually, I purée the cooked, unsqueezed spinach in a blender. But this time, I cooked, squeezed, and chopped, for a coarser version of the classic dish.

The paneer cheese is easy to make, providing it doesn’t all get eaten at the curds and whey stage. I will be the first to admit that I sit there slurping down those soft, creamy lumps like Little Miss Muffet—so fun and soothing to eat, like an extra-thick broth. I tried some with nothing but chopped squeezed spinach and a little salt. It was tasty, but not as all-around satisfying as the squeezed saag paneer I eventually made.

The most decadent way to eat squeezed spinach is with lots of ricotta cheese. I make this creamy spinach sauce with garlic, lemon, and Romano cheese, and serve it over hollow noodles, such as penne. Thus far in my research, these lemon ricotta noodles are everybody’s favorite way to consume squeezed spinach.

Epoch Times Photo
Dense, earthy spinach adds pockets of green to these bright and creamy lemon-ricotta noodles. (Ari LeVaux)

Squeezed Spinach Pasta

This dish is bright and creamy and puffy and soft, yet balanced with pockets of dense green earthiness.

Serves 4

  • 1 pound spinach (preferably not baby spinach)
  • 1 pound penne or similarly hollow pasta (the package should indicate that the pasta was dried slowly)
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped, divided
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • Juice and zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 cup ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 cup grated Romano cheese
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Hot chile flakes or paprika, to taste

Boil 2 gallons of salted water (about 1 tablespoon salt). If you have a pasta insert for your pot, use it. Add the spinach and boil for about 4 minutes. Remove the spinach and immediately plunge it into cold water to cool. When it’s cool, transfer it to a colander to drain.

Add the pasta to the greenish boiling water and cook.

While the noodles boil, squeeze the spinach into as tight a ball as you can, pressing out as much liquid as possible. Place the spinach on a cutting board and chop it.

Sauté half the garlic in the oil and butter. Scatter the spinach into the pan, add the lemon juice and zest, and give it a modest stir. Cook for a minute on medium, then add the cooked, drained pasta and the cheeses. Stir it all together. Season with salt and pepper. Dust with chile flakes and serve.

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Saag paneer, a rustic Indian favorite, floats milky homemade cheese in spiced, stewed spinach. (Yulia Gust/Shutterstock)

Squeezed Spinach Saag Paneer

This rustic dish is full of flavor. Serve with jasmine or basmati rice.

Serves 4

  • 1 gallon milk
  • 1 cup yogurt
  • 1 pound spinach
  • 4 tablespoons ghee, oil, or butter
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seed
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seed
  • 1 large onion, sliced
  • 1 inch ginger, peeled and minced
  • 2 teaspoons garam masala powder
  • Sliced jalapeño pepper, to taste
  • Salt to taste

To make the cheese, heat the milk. When it simmers, turn off the heat and stir in the yogurt. Let it sit for about half an hour, as the acid from the yogurt will trigger the formation of large, smooth curds that float in the surrounding, relatively thin whey. When it’s cool enough to work with, strain the curds in a metal strainer or with cheesecloth. Let them settle while you prepare the spinach.

Boil 2 gallons of salted water (about 1 tablespoon salt). Add the spinach and boil for about 4 minutes. Remove the spinach and immediately plunge it into cold water to cool. When it’s cool, transfer it to a colander to drain. Squeeze the spinach into as tight a ball as you can, pressing out as much liquid as possible. Place the spinach on a cutting board and chop it.

Slice the cheese into slabs, and cut the slabs into cubes. Heat the ghee in a pan and fry the cheese until golden brown on some if not all sides. Remove the cheese from the pan and set aside.

Add the cumin, coriander, ginger, and onion to the pan. Stir it all together. When the onion starts to caramelize and make water, add the garam masala and jalapeño slices, if using.

When the onions have completely cooked down, add the spinach and cheese. Stir briefly, salt to taste, and serve with rice.

Ari LeVaux
Ari LeVaux writes about food in Missoula, Mont.
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