Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Wash spinach.
It's the recipe that has eluded us all: mom's creamed spinach à la Julia. The spinach we devoured at Thanksgiving, on any night we came home from college, on Sunday nights with roasted chicken and potatoes, just the three or, even better, four of us. The one my friends talked about for years: "Your mother's spinach: I've never eaten anything like it." Or, "Will your mother make the spinach if I come over for dinner?"
Drop in the washed spinach and cook for 3 minutes. Dump into a colander, then immediately run under cold water to stop it from cooking.
For years, my sister and I attempted to make it on our own. Each time, it tasted wrong. Often, simply . . . bad. We laughed at our own failures — we considered ourselves good cooks — but why did it matter? Mom was always coming for a visit soon enough, or we'd be headed home in a few months and we'd eat her perfect version again.
When the pandemic hit, an urgency overtook me: Mom is 80. She lives clear across the continent in another country, so we don't know when we will see her again, or eat her cooking. This only brought up darker, more terrifying thoughts. What if we never learn to make the spinach —
From our various kitchens, we prop up our computers. My daughter, Noa, and I put on aprons. We all peer into our screens: my parents in Montreal, Dad manning the camera; my sister in Southern California; my aunt in Toronto; my second mom (as we call a family friend) in Nova Scotia. We are all talking over each other. All of us have gone more gray over the past 14 months, since we've been together around the table, some of us a little wider in the middle, all of us a little crazed, desperate for one another. "Then what, Mom?" "Then what? Judy?" "Did you take it out already?" "Should I be cutting the spinach?" "Should it be wet?"
Squeeze out all the excess water. Then place spinach on cutting board. Chop.
Photo by Toby Izenberg.
Noa squeezes and squeezes. She sets it aside, then goes back for more. "Look, Mama!" The bottom of our sink fills with green water. My sister is behind, dumping in a second batch of spinach; my aunt is going at her own pace, and it's not clear she can hear over all the noise of the talking and boiling and chopping and draining. Mom No. 2 isn't even doing it, she's just watching us, sitting at her computer in her office like we are a TV show. "This is the most entertaining thing I've watched in months," she says, laughing. "The Rasminskys making spinach."
Melt a lot of butter in the bottom of a pot. Like, way more than you think: 3 tablespoons per 10 ounces of spinach. Or even more, if you want.
"Does Le Creuset work, Mom?"
"That's not Le Creuset. What are you using?"
"It's just a regular — "
"Dad, we can't see what Mom's using, tilt the camera!"
"They can't see, Michael!"
"You can use Le Creuset. I'm using something smaller, because it's only us —"
"That's what I'm using! Le Creuset!"
"It's fine, whatever it is, it's fine. A pot."
It's a lot of butter. That's the thing. That's the key. It's Julia. Then add the spinach. Stir and cover the pot for a while.
"A while? Like, a minute? 10 minutes?"
Cover for a minute or two. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of flour. This is for 10 ounces of spinach, so you do the math if you've cooked more spinach. Stir until it dissolves. Add a little salt and pepper and grated nutmeg. Stir.
Photo by Toby Izenberg.
I watch my mother and count how long she grates for. Nine seconds. Her fragile hands. The crooked finger. My dad holding the camera steady.
Add half a Knorr cube. It has to be Knorr to get the right taste. Then slowly add a cup of water. Make sure the cube dissolves!
"I don't have K— I don't have Knorr!"
"Mom, I'm just using vegetable stock."
"Vegetable? Why not chicken or beef?"
"I don't have —"
"It won't taste the same, but use what you have."
"Oh sh*t, I put in way too much stock! F*ck, I think I ruined it. Mom?"
"How is it?"
"I don't know, did I ruin it? Shi*."
"It's . . . it's OK?"
Adjust the seasoning. You could add another 2 to 3 tablespoons of butter.
We stir and stir. We taste once, twice, and soon I'm eating it out of the pot, just like my aunt, who stands in her kitchen eating it straight: "Judy, it's delicious." Noa tells me it tastes like Grandma's. I don't think so, but I don't know what's wrong. Maybe it needs salt? Maybe it was the Knorr cube? Maybe this is a dish only Mom should make, a dish we only know how to eat in my parents' kitchen.
Photo by Toby Izenberg.
Maybe what I want is not the taste of spinach done right, but the taste of home, of another time. The taste of sitting down with Mom and Dad and my sister around the old table on Redfern, a bottle of wine — or, reach back further, Abby, milk in a tall glass — a perfectly roasted chicken, the skin so taut and crispy, the comfort of Mom's cooking, of safety, of a night together, of our bedrooms upstairs and the snowy city outside and school in the morning.
Maybe what I want is just to have them close, the shape and smell and sound of them, to have my dad ask if I want more chicken, to serve my Mom more spinach, to pour my sister some wine, to sit in the same seats we've sat in for decades, in the breakfast room, which was the place where we ate all the meals, not just breakfast — and be a family again.
Prep time: 25 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
- 10 ounces washed spinach
- 2-3 tablespoons unsalted butter (or more)
- 2-3 tablespoons flour
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1/2 Knorr stock cube
- 1 cup water
- salt to taste
- pepper to taste
- Put a pot of water to boil with salt. Wash spinach. Put spinach in boiling water and cook for 3 minutes at a slow boil.
- Drain spinach and run cold water over spinach to stop it from cooking. A handful at a time, squeeze the spinach to get the water out. Chop. (You can now store, refrigerate and continue whenever.)
- In a pot on medium heat, melt 2-3 tablespoons of butter, then put spinach in and stir. Cover for a minute or two.
- Add 2-3 tablespoons of flour and stir until the white dissolves. Really make sure white dissolves!
- Add a little salt and pepper and grate nutmeg for 9 seconds. Stir. Add 1/2 Knorr stock cube (chicken or beef preferably) and continue to stir while gradually adding 1 cup of water. Be sure the stock dissolves completely!
- Correct seasoning. At the end you could add another 2-3 tablespoons of butter.
- Take off heat. It's really important not to cook it too long, either while you're preparing it or when you heat it up to serve later! You just want it gently heated. Overcooking is what kills it.