My love for creamy baked spinach runs deep. The infatuation began early for me, during my grade school years, when spinach and artichoke dip was the buffet table mainstay (along with a crockpot full of cocktail weenies) at every 90’s era backyard cookout that occurred in my Deep South hometown. My mom makes a mean spinach dip, with or without the artichoke, that always seems to tip-toe right up to the edge of “too much garlic” but never in a way that displeases me. A friend from my hometown named Paige once brought her family’s version of the dish to a party I threw almost 10 years ago, and I still remember the restraint I was forced to exercise just so that my guests could share in the delight of Paige’s dip. Clearly, I'm willing to make big sacrifices to be the hostess with the mostest.
Back in college, when I was subsisting primarily on turkey sandwiches and tortilla chips, I started making a little improvised version of my mom’s recipe that swapped out the cream cheese in favor of goat cheese, which I had recently discovered by chance at the nearby Publix grocery. It was around this time that I decided definitively, after much thoughtful consideration - anything to avoid thinking about homework - that I enjoyed spinach and artichokes best separately. Critical decision-making at its finest here, guys. Finally, after a couple years of enjoying my Spinach Dip + Tortilla Chip duo for dinner 4 out of 7 nights a week, I dropped the tortilla chips to focus solely what I loved best about it - the spinach. I haven’t looked back since.
Creamy baked spinach is my go-to comfort food. So long as I can pair it with a runny-yolk egg and a hunk of crusty baguette, I’m willing to try pretty much any baked spinach recipe that comes my way. I’m not sure exactly when I stumbled upon what used to be my one and only go-to creamy spinach - the Julia Child method for baked spinach (à la Smitten Kitchen) - but up until recently it was the Baked Spinach Masterpiece for me. Over at the Smitten Kitchen they call it the Best Baked Spinach, and that’s no exaggeration; it is downright ethereal. I have made it too many times to count, and it definitely deserves a post of its own. But, the problem with that dish, if there could possibly be one, is that it calls for fresh spinach to be de-stemmed, blanched, drained, chopped, etc. It entails a good bit of work, especially for a weeknight, when my craving for a hearty but light, vegetable-focused meal is the strongest. And while investing time and energy into a recipe that yields delicious results is always worthwhile in my book, sometimes you just need a faster way to satisfy a craving. I have tested a few variations of the Best Baked Spinach with frozen spinach, but something about the way that the velouté and the frozen spinach came together never quite worked for me.
Enter Laurie Colwin’s jalapeño creamed spinach. Upon first taste, this dreamy dish became the answer to every single question I had about baking frozen spinach, the most pressing of them being “What should I have for dinner tonight?” By spiking the frozen, chopped spinach with diced jalapeños, and using cubed cheese (no shredding required, amaze!), this recipe presents the most direct path to baked spinach deliciousness. If you’re in the market for a new back pocket recipe, this one fits the bill well. It accepts substitutions graciously, and all of the ingredients keep in the fridge/freezer/pantry for weeks (!) on end. Having made it three times in as many months, I can definitely say it’s a new favorite in my household. While it hasn’t completely knocked the Julia Child/Smitten Kitchen method off of its Most Amazing Baked Spinach throne, it definitely has nuzzled itself right up there next to it, and isn’t going anywhere soon other than onto my plate (again). I have made room for more than one Baked Spinach Masterpiece in my life, and my tastebuds have thanked me for it. Join me! I think you're going to love it.
Adapted from Laurie Colwin’s Jalapeño Creamed Spinach via Food 52
2 10-ounce packages of chopped frozen spinach
6 tablespoons butter, divided
1 shallot, chopped (or about 2 tablespoons of chopped onion)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup evaporated milk (or cream, half and half, or any milk that is not skim)
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
salt to taste, start with 1/2 teaspoon
6 ounces Gruyere cheese, cubed
pickled jalapeno peppers, chopped (to taste, I used a good bit, roughly a handful)
1/2 cup bread crumbs
Preheat your oven to 325 degrees F.
Prep your liquid ingredients and the spinach: Thaw out the spinach and drain it in a colander that has been placed over a measuring cup. (I left mine sitting out for a while, but it still was quite frozen when I was ready to start so I used the defrost setting on my microwave and it worked well.) Squeeze and press the spinach until you have one cup of green liquid in the measuring cup. Set aside to use soon. Measure out a half cup of evaporated milk (or whatever milk you’ve chosen to use).
Prep your chopped ingredients, bread crumbs, and baking dish: Chop the shallot, mince the garlic, cube the cheese, and dice the jalapeño. Lop off two chunks of butter - one measuring 4 tablespoons, the other measuring 2 tablespoons. Melt the 2 tablespoon chunk of butter in a bowl (I used the microwave again here for weeknight ease) and then dump the 1/2 cup of breadcrumbs in and stir until all of the crumbs are buttered. Grease a casserole dish or a cast iron skillet (both have worked well for me) with spray or butter, whatever your preference.
Now you’re ready to move to the stovetop.
Melt the remaining 4 tablespoons of the butter and add in the flour, whisking constantly. Don’t let the roux get too dark, you want a blonde roux here.
Add the shallot and garlic and cook for a couple minutes.
Then add the cup of reserved spinach liquid, stirring slowly. Once incorporated, add the evaporated milk, black pepper, and salt. Stir again. Finally add the jalapeños, the spinach, and the cubed cheese and give the whole ensemble a good stir until all ingredients are incorporated smoothly.
Turn everything into your greased dish and top with the buttered breadcrumbs.
Bake for about 45 minutes, until the top is bronzed and the spinach is bubbling a little along the edge of the dish. If your spinach bubbles before the crumbs are browned to your likening, pass the dish under the broiler until you’ve reach your toasty satisfaction
Note: I recently tried this dish with pepper jack cheese and have a couple of observations for substituting in other cheeses. First, make sure to cut the cheese into very small cubes or shred. The Gruyere melted and went smooth while baking, and the pepper jack stayed intact creating little cheese pockets. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I’m partial to the way the gruyere melts into the spinach. Second, when mixing the ingredients together on the stove top, stir it around and let the cheese melt for a little longer than originally prescribed so that the cheese has a head start for melting when it goes into the oven.