“Are you going to make something with spinach for dinner?,” asked my wife. “Are you in the mood for spinach?” I countered. “It’s just that we still have so much of it,” came the reply. Oh, boy! I have this habit about locally grown farmers market spinach. I love the stuff. I buy bunches of it and then forget to cook with it. After a week in the fridge, the spinach still looked great, but the freshness clock was ticking and it was time I cooked it up.
What to make, though? A quiche? Possible, but that idea vanished and in its place appeared a spinach mac and cheese. No, that won’t do because I’d written a mac and cheese recipe a few months earlier. But the idea of a spinach and pasta something began taking hold.
Ham and spinach are good together. Yes. And mustard! Okay. The dish was coming together. Yellow onion and mushrooms also insisted on their presence. All I needed was a creamy sauce and some cheese, and something crunchy to contrast with the soft veggies. Panko crumbs to the rescue! That would do it.
When making this dish, I use my trusty 12-inch skillet four times in a row without washing. First, I cook the onions and mushrooms. The ham is next, followed by the spinach and garlic, and finally I brown the Panko crumbs in olive oil. I cook the macaroni, whisk the mustard sauce in a bowl, shred the cheese, and I’m ready to layer the strata.
This is a beautiful dish — hearty, colorful, and very delicious. If you can, do buy what I call “real spinach,” the kind sold in bunches with big sturdy leaves. It’s easy to strip the leaves off the stems. Once cooked the spinach has a texture that won’t fall apart. In a pinch, you could use 1 pound of “baby spinach.” But be sure not to overcook it. The directions are in the recipe headnote. Above all, have fun and happy cooking!
Busy Skillet Spinach, Ham, and Macaroni Strata
Makes 6 generous servings
The best spinach for this recipe is large-leafed bunch spinach. If you must use baby spinach, put 1 pound of it into a large metal bowl, bring 2 quarts of water to a rolling boil, and pour all the water onto the spinach. Stir the spinach and water together for a minute or two to wilt it and drain in a colander. Run cold water over the spinach to stop the cooking. Squeeze spinach by the handful to remove as much water as you can, and it’s ready to use in the recipe.
Vegetables and Ham
1 pound 2 ounces fresh spinach leaves from bunch spinach
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
Salt and pepper
1 pound yellow onion, peeled and diced (about 4 cups)
8 ounces cremini mushrooms, stems and caps diced
8 ounces sliced ham, cut into 1-by-1/4-inch strips
3/4 cup Panko crumbs
1 tablespoon olive oil
Pasta, Sauce, and Cheese
8 ounces elbow macaroni
1 cup mascarpone, sour cream, or Greek yogurt (whole or low-fat)
1 cup milk, whole or low-fat
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
6 ounces mozzarella, gruyère, comté or a combo of the cheeses, coarsely shredded
1. For the spinach, wash the leaves well and place them into a large pot. Add a quart or so of water, cover the pot, and set it over high heat. When the water boils, stir the leaves and water together, and cook just until the leaves are all wilted, 1 to 2 minutes. Drain in a colander and run cold tap water over the spinach to cool it. Squeeze one handful of spinach at a time — as forcefully as you can — to squeeze the liquid out. You should wind up with 10 ounces of squeezed spinach. Chop the spinach coarsely with a large chef’s knife.
Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the spinach. Stir and cook about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute more. Take the pan off the heat and stir in 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Scrape the spinach onto a side dish. Do not wash the skillet.
2. For the onion and mushrooms, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and 2 tablespoons butter in the spinach-cooking skillet over medium heat. When the butter is foamy, add the onion. Stir and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Add the mushrooms, stir well, and cover the pan. Cook over medium-low heat for 5 minutes, stirring once. The onion and mushrooms should be cooked through but not mushy. Take the pan off the heat and stir in 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Transfer onion and mushrooms to a side dish. Do not wash the skillet.
3. For the ham, heat 1 tablespoon butter in the same skillet over medium heat until foamy. Add the ham. Cook, stirring, for 2 minutes just until ham has begun to brown in a few spots. Transfer ham to a side dish. Do not wash the skillet.
4. For the topping, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in the same skillet over medium heat. Add the Panko crumbs and stir constantly for 2 to 3 minutes until the crumbs turn a light golden color. Remove the pan from the heat. Set aside with the crumbs in the pan.
5. For the macaroni, bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and add the pasta. Stir well, and cook until al dente, following package directions. Drain in a colander and run the macaroni under cool tap water to remove excess starch. Set aside until needed.
6. For the sauce, whisk together in a medium bowl the mascarpone, milk and Dijon mustard. Taste carefully and add a little salt if you feel the sauce needs it.
7. Assembly. Lightly butter a 3-quart baking dish. Put the macaroni into the dish and stir in 1/2 cup of the sauce. Spread macaroni in a layer and sprinkle with 2 ounces of the cheese. Top with the ham in an even layer followed by the onion and mushrooms. Spread 1/2 cup of sauce evenly on the vegetables, and sprinkle with 2 ounces cheese. Spread the spinach and garlic over the onion and mushrooms, and pour on the remaining sauce. Spread evenly, and sprinkle with the last of the cheese. Top the dish with the toasted Panko crumbs. The pan will be full. (May be made to this point hours ahead and refrigerated. Bring to room temperature before baking).
8. To bake, adjust an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake 30 to 45 minutes, until piping hot throughout. Serve on heated plates.
Greg Patent is a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author for “Baking in America,” a food journalist, blogger, and radio co-host for “The Food Guys” on Montana Public Radio. Please subscribe to his blog, www.thebakingwizard.com, and follow his adventures on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
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