If you are planning for a large family gathering or a dinner with friends, and time is of the issue, it is sometimes a very good idea to cook a few dishes in advance of the date and store them in the freezer.
This is a recipe for a spinach ‘sformato’, similar in many ways to a soufflé, which I happen to bake in a bread loaf pan and which therefore looks a little like a brick – hence the name ‘spinach brick’. It is served accompanied by a bean and tomato sauce. I used fresh spinach to make this recipe but frozen spinach will do too.
Ingredients: 1kg cooked spinach, 500ml of béchamel sauce, 4 eggs divided into gently beaten yolks and stiffly beaten egg whites, 100gr grated parmigiano (or more if preferred), a good knob of butter for cooking the spinach.
Ingredients for the béchamel sauce: 500ml milk, 50 g butter, 50g flour, freshly grated nutmeg, pinch of salt.
Start by making the béchamel sauce and set aside.
Melt some butter in a saucepan …
Cook the spinach in the butter for a few minutes, add salt and pepper, switch off heat.
Then separate the egg yolks from the egg whites and beat the latter until they are nice and snowy and fluffy. Set aside.
And now it’s time to put the dish together.
Add the béchamel first to the spinach …
Then the beaten egg yolks.
Now add the grated parmesan cheese.
Use a spatula or wooden spoon to mix up all the ingredients. And then add the final ingredient:
Add the cloud of beaten egg whites.
Give it a good mix … and that’s it for now.
Pour the mixture into the bread loaf pan. Bang the pan gently on a surface … this will make it spread more evenly.
Cover with clingfilm …
And pop the bread loaf pan in the freezer for future use.
COOKING THE SPINACH BRICK
When it’s time to cook the spinach brick … defrost it until it reaches room temperature and then bake in an oven preheated at 190°C for about 40 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow it cool a little before turning it over onto a serving dish.
The “brick” is then sliced into individual portions and is served with a mashed-up bean sauce derived from the famous Tuscan/Florentine recipe known as “fagioli all’uccelletto” (see recipe below).
MAKING FAGIOLI ALL’UCCELLETTO TO BE USED AS A SAUCE
Ingredients: 4 cloves garlic, 4 sage leaves, fresh or canned plum tomatoes, chilli, 1 jar or tin of cooked beans (either borlotti beans or cannellini beans), extra virgin olive oil.
Pour the olive oil into a small frying pan and turn on the heat. Slice the garlic into thin rounds and add to the saucepan together with the sage leaves and as much or as little peperoncino (chilli) as desired. When the garlic turns a dark golden colour, add the beans and tomatoes, turn the heat up and cook for about 10 minutes.
Please note that it is nowadays frowned upon in Italian cooking to let the garlic turn so dark, it is thought to overwhelm and spoil a dish with its bitterness. But in this particular culinary instance, please DO let the garlic cook until it becomes this colour before adding the sage leaves, beans and the tomatoes!
Repeat: cook for about 1o minutes, adding salt at the end. And this is what the faggioli all’uccelletto recipe consists of. And one would serve it in a nice bowl to accompany meat dishes or sausages or even on its own, as a side dish.
I, on the other hand, wished to purée the beans and so plopped everything into a saucepan, so that I could use the hand held processor without splattering the food all over the kitchen wall (happens all the time!).
Now a purist would have used a food mill to process the beans … but I can safely say that an electric processor is absolutely fine for this recipe. At this point, I got hold of another jar of cooked beans, drained them of their cooking water, and poured them into the saucepan. I liked the idea of the sauce showing off some beans.
Time to eat our spinach brick …
Slice the spinach brick into whatever sized portions you fancy …
I cut a long line down the middle and then across …
And now heat up the sauce and pour it all over …
See how the beans play peekaboo through the sauce …
Buon appetito … and if you are properly hungry this is a most satisfying plate to set before one’s eyes!
P.S. The photos of the finished dish are pretty awful, I have to admit! But it was a case of taking better photos or … getting on with the dinner that reunited friends of ours who live close by and friends who had come all the way from Hungary. Enough said …
BUT this spinach recipe can also be served on individual dishes and the sauce can be served separately — you don’t have to drown the spinach in the sauce the way I did!
P.P.S. I was taught this recipe by my lovely Canadian friend who had enjoyed a cooking class with Judy Witts Francini at her then Florence location of Cucina Divina many years ago. I happen to think it quite delicious and it is truly a life saver when it comes to buffet parties as well as large sit-down dinners.