I’m preparing a special Valentine’s Day dinner for my hubby and kids influenced by childhood memories and the meals I shared with my family at Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Growing up, we didn’t have much money. But whenever my dad had a few extra bucks in his pocket, he brought us to Ruth’s Chris for an amazing steak dinner. My meal always consisted of the same thing. A petite filet, which always arrived at our table screaming in a hot bath of sizzling butter, and creamed spinach, a rich, velvety and bubbly dish of vegetable bliss. That combo was a great reflection of the restaurant’s main attractions–USDA prime steaks and homey New Orleans side dishes.
What many people don’t realize is that Ruth’s Chris is a New Orleans institution. It all began back in 1965 when Ruth Fertel, a single mother of two, mortgaged her house to buy a restaurant on the corner of Broad and Ursuline Streets. Over time and through lots of hard work, perseverance and genuine kindness, Ms. Fertel turned that one restaurant into the biggest chain of premium steakhouses in the world. This First Lady of American Restaurants, as she was called, sold the company in 1999 and subsequently passed away in 2002. But her namesake restaurants live on. And while I can’t vouch for the quality of the food or level of local flavor served in Ruth’s Chris restaurants today, I can reminisce and recreate those wonderful dishes from the early 70s in my own kitchen. Creamed spinach is at the top of my list.
Creamed spinach is sautéed spinach cloaked in a dreamy béchamel sauce. I keep it plain and simple, just like Ruth Fertel did in those early days. But the spinach preparation in this recipe takes kindly to embellishments such as shallots, onions and garlic. Because spinach cooks down to practically nothing, a large quantity of the fresh greens are used to provide ample servings. The large bags I list under the ingredients can easily be found at your local wholesale store. Of course, the smaller bags are fine. They just cost more. When you get to the instructions, you may be compelled to skip the blanching step and add the spinach directly to the béchamel. Don’t do it. Cooking it that way will release too much moisture creating a watery sauce. Not very appealing. Blanch, drain and squeeze the spinach dry. It’s well worth the effort. Now you’re one recipe away from a mack daddy Valentine’s Day dinner. Visit me tomorrow for the steak recipe that best accompanies this spinach!
Creamed Spinach Recipe
2 20-ounce bags fresh spinach, washed and tough stems removed
Water and salt, for boiling
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup all purpose flour
2 cups warm half-n-half or whole milk
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Preheat broiler. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add spinach and cook until wilted, about 2 minutes. Drain and squeeze out excess water by pressing spinach against the sides of a colander with the back of a large spoon. Coarsely chop and set aside. In a large saucepan, make a white roux by melting the butter over medium heat. Gradually add the flour, whisking constantly, until fully blended and bubbly. Do not brown. Now, turn that white roux into a Bechamel Sauce by gradually adding the warm half-n-half or whole milk. Stir in the bay leaf, salt, peppers and nutmeg. Cook, whisking frequently, until mixture begins to thicken, about 10 minutes. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring often, for an additional 10 minutes. Remove bay leaf and stir in spinach. Pour mixture into a lightly greased baking dish and broil until top is golden brown and bubbly, about 3 minutes. Serve hot. Makes 6-8 servings.