Green peace

Soothe yourself with a bowl of spinach

Spinach, of all the green vegetables, is the one universally loathed by children. It is quite clear that the reason Popeye was seen to eat huge amounts of the stuff was to entice the new generation of TV kids into at least trying it. "Makes you strong, says Popeye", was the phrase mothers used to plead, as they coaxed their grimacing young into forking up the green slime from their plates.

Someone once told me it was the high iron content in spinach that the average child's untarnished digestion could not cope with. Well, be that as it may, I still think it is the texture and consistency of tinned Popeye, and, later, Bird's Eye frozen spinach, that caused much of the trouble in the first place. Fresh leaf spinach, gently turned in butter and seasoned with nutmeg, might surely have converted the most taciturn of brats, myself included.

Nowadays, however, it is almost more easy to purchase a cellophane packet of ready-washed and picked spinach leaves from the supermarket, than it is to search through the shelves for a tin, or delve to the bottom of the freezer cabinet for a stiff block. What is more, the packet wording for the fresh leaves promises instant success if the whole thing is simply placed into the microwave oven and blasted for a minute or so. As I don't possess a microwave, I wouldn't know, but it is a huge boon to all not to have to wade through sacks of muddy green leaves, endlessly washing off traces of sand and mud and ditching many of the leaves that have turned to slime. A triumph of modern-day supermarket packaging that is, at last, really useful.

Spinach has become the darling of restaurant vegetables, too. It makes a great foil for fish in particular, placed under a delicately cooked fillet of turbot or brill, for instance, when sauced with a beurre blanc or hollandaise. It is already famous as a foil for eggs; the Florentine way being the most familiar, although a vegetarian version of Eggs Benedict - using a partly hollowed-out baked potato instead of the muffin, spinach in place of the ham - makes for a truly splendid supper.

Another famous dish using spinach and hollandaise, is a favourite of regular diners at Langan's brasserie in London's West End. Their spinach souffle, served with anchovy hollandaise, is as perfect a combination as can be. And with anchovy being yet another winning partner for spinach - and also to eggs, as it happens - the combination cannot fail.

Not wanting to have shamelessly copied a dish from fellow chef Richard Shepherd, who created this particular souffle, I fashioned a similar idea at Bibendum, utilising another recipe for chopped spinach baked in a ramekin with eggs (sometimes called a dariole). I worked the collation into more of a mousse and steamed them in little pots until firm. The astonishingly good sauce, however, remains as the original. After all, it is this, more than anything else, that really makes the dish.

Another adaptation of a spinach recipe (the one that is used to make gnocchi) can also be transformed into the most delicious fried cakes. Chopped spinach is mixed with fresh ricotta cheese, eggs, a little flour and Parmesan, formed into small cakes, dipped in flour, egg and breadcrumbs and fried in hot oil. Usually, gnocchi are poached or steamed, but here the mixture develops a gorgeous crusted coating, with all the creamy bits kept securely within.

Spinach and ricotta cakes with mustard sauce, serves 4

750g/112 lb spinach

75g/3oz fresh ricotta cheese

3 egg yolks

110g/4oz freshly grated Parmesan

salt and pepper

14 of a whole nutmeg, grated

1 level tbsp plain flour

a little extra plain flour

1 egg, beaten

2-3 tbsp fresh white breadcrumbs.

groundnut oil for frying

Blanch the spinach in boiling water for a couple of minutes. Drain and refresh under very cold running water. Squeeze in a tea-towel until completely dry. Puree the spinach, ricotta, egg yolks, Parmesan, seasoning and nutmeg. Spread out onto a shallow tray, cover with cling film and put in the fridge to firm up for at least 2 hours. Note: it is most important that the squeezing of the spinach is thorough: the mixture is naturally soft, but any excess liquid will cause it to be unmanageable.

To form the cakes, first flour your hands. Take up the equivalent of a large tablespoonful of the mixture and form into a rounded cake. Place on a floured surface and neaten into a flat, sort of fishcake shape. Put onto a tray covered with cling film. Make seven more and, once again, put into the fridge to firm up.

Pre-heat the oven to 350F/180C/gas mark 4.

Gently roll the cakes in flour, then in egg and, finally, in the breadcrumbs. Heat about 4 tablespoons of the groundnut oil in a large frying pan until hot but not smoking. (If the pan can take all the cakes in one go, all the better, if not cook in two batches of four.) Gently place the cakes in the hot oil and fry for a couple of minutes on each side until golden brown. Place on a rack, suspended on an oven tray, and then in the oven. Finish the cooking here for a further 15-20 minutes.

Meanwhile, make this very easy mustard sauce:

275ml/10fl oz double cream

2 tbsp good quality Dijon mustard

3-4 dashes of Tabasco

In a small saucepan, heat the cream and whisk in the mustard and Tabasco. Simmer for about 5 minutes until custardy thick and unctuous. Serve two cakes per person, on four hot plates, and pour the sauce over and around. Decorate with a few sprightly sprigs of watercress if you like.

Spinach mousse with anchovy hollandaise, serves 4

For the mousse:

2 eggs

110g/4oz cooked spinach, squeezed dry in a tea-towel

225ml/8fl oz double cream

salt and pepper

freshly grated nutmeg

For the anchovy hollandaise:

3 egg yolks

1 tbsp water

225g/8oz butter, melted, froth removed

50g/2oz tin anchovy fillets, drained of oil

lemon juice to taste

pinch of cayenne pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 350F/180C/gas mark 4.

Puree the eggs and spinach in a blender until really smooth. Pour into a bowl, stir in the cream until well mixed and season with a little salt (the anchovy sauce will compensate later), pepper and nutmeg. Fit a tiny disk of grease-proof paper into the base of four well-buttered dariole moulds or ramekins, and pour in the spinach mixture up to the brim. Cover with rounds of foil and place in a deep oven dish. Pour tap-hot water around the moulds until it comes to at least three-quarters of the way up the outside of the moulds. Bake in the pre-heated oven for 20-25 minutes, or until firm to the touch.

Meanwhile, make the sauce. Ladle the de-frothed butter into another small clean pan, leaving behind the milky residue at the bottom. Put back onto a flame to re-heat. Whisk together the egg yolks with the water over a gentle heat until pale and creamy. Take the eggs off the heat, add the butter in a thin stream, whisking constantly until glossy and thick. Tip the whole lot into a blender or food processor and add the anchovies, lemon juice and cayenne pepper. Puree until smooth and push through a sieve into a warmed bowl. Once the mousses are cooked, turn out onto warmed plates and spoon the sauce over. Serve at once.

Spinach soup with lemon, serves 4-5

50g/2oz butter

4 small leeks, most of the green part removed, sliced and washed

2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

1 14 pints/700ml light chicken stock

700g/112 lb washed and dried spinach leaves (the ready packed bags from supermarkets are ideal here)

salt and pepper

1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley, leaves only

150ml/5fl oz whipping cream

juice of half a lemon

1 small lemon, skin and pith removed and cut thin slices, picking out any stray seeds

Melt the butter in a roomy pan and sweat the leeks until really soft. Add the garlic and cook a little longer. Pour in the stock and bring to the boil. Simmer for 10 minutes and then tip in the spinach and parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Cook for a further 10 minutes and then puree, in batches, in the liquidiser until very smooth. Pass through a sieve into a clean pan and gently re-heat. Check the seasoning.

Just before serving, quickly mix the lemon juice and cream together until smooth. Pour the soup into individual bowls and swirl the cream over the surface. Float the lemon slices on top and serve

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