My family always argues over a Thanksgiving vegetable dish. My dad doesn’t like the classic green bean casserole made with Cream of Mushroom Soup and crispy fried onion ring crumbles. He can’t get past the condensed soup flavor. When I asked him last year what vegetable I should make instead, he suggested lima beans. We made green bean casserole anyway.
One year my Mom and I tried making this dish from scratch. We figured, fresh green beans lightly steamed, thick chunks of mushrooms, a silky white sauce, and what could be better? That was the year I determined that part of what I like so much about the classic green bean casserole is… the taste of processed condensed soup. I can’t help it. I love the savory, umami saltiness of it, and the homemade substitute was just not an acceptable replacement for me.
One year at Thanksgiving with some family friends, they brought a big salad to supplement our carbohydrate-rich, overloaded plates. The bowl was passed around the table. No one took any salad except L, who had made it in the first place. When she protested, her husband uttered the truest words anyone has ever spoken: “Thanksgiving is not about lettuce.” So salad, too, failed the test.
Now that October is over, the challenge again rears its head: which vegetables can I dress up to complement the comforting classics we always serve? While N. was gone at a conference recently, I fiddled around with some trial dishes and voila, Thanksgiving Veg 2010 was born: creamed spinach and artichoke bake. It’s the comfort and familiarity of creamed spinach, with the flavors and reminiscence of spinach artichoke dip. Perfection, no?
Here’s what you need:
4 TB butter
4 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
1 – 2 leeks, white and pale green parts only, chopped fine
4 TB flour
Generous grating of fresh nutmeg
2 cups milk or cream
4 oz. cream cheese
At least 10 oz. spinach (that’s the amount in one frozen box, but I used fresh because I prefer it)
16 oz. can of artichoke hearts in water, drained and quartered
Salt and pepper to taste
2 TB butter
½ cup or more of Panko bread crumbs
2-3 TB parmesan cheese, grated
Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. When it is nearly all melted, add the garlic and sauté for just a minute or two, until the aroma is enticing. Add the leeks and sauté until they are softened. Leeks are a new love of mine. They are the least aggressively flavored members of the onion family, and I think they taste like a cross between a sweet onion and garlic. They don’t have that astringency onions sometimes do, and I think they are like a stalk of springtime. I’ve started putting them in frittatas, and when I had one left over on the night I made this little concoction, it seemed like the perfect thing to add in.
When the leeks are tender but not browned, add the flour and nutmeg. Add some pepper too, if you like. Stir in until well incorporated with no huge floury lumps, and cook for a minute or two until the flour is pale golden in color. Then add the milk, slowly, whisking the entire time. I added it in installments of probably half a cup each, stirring until the milk was fully integrated into the flour mixture. I found this helped avoid lumps, making a smoother base overall. Add the cream cheese and mix in. Whisking fairly constantly, let the milk come to a boil. It will thicken as it heats.
When the milk is quite thick, add the spinach and artichoke hearts. The spinach will wilt quickly, and as soon as it is looking soft, kill the heat. Since this is going to bake for a while, you don’t want to overcook the spinach because it will lose its beautiful color and begin to look muddy.
Salt and pepper to taste. You could stop here and eat this whole delectable mess right out of the skillet, but I wasn’t ready to quit yet. After all, it takes my dad about half an hour to carve a turkey, so the oven is (mostly) free. Why not take advantage of that?
With your oven at a preheated 350F, carefully dump the spinach and artichoke mixture into a baking dish (I used a glass nine-inch pie pan). Set it aside for a moment while you make the topping.
Mix together the Panko bread crumbs and parmesan cheese with the softened butter. Drop the buttery crumbs in little clumps all over the top of the spinach and artichoke mixture. If you don’t get the vegetables completely covered, that’s okay. In fact, it’s good, because it means any exposed edges of leeks or artichokes will get a little toasty and golden. More texture = more exciting to eat!
Bake the whole thing for about half an hour at 350F, or until the crumbs on top are browned and the sauce is bubbling at the edges. Remove and consume.
What I liked about this dish was… well, innumerable. But the basics: I love creamed spinach, and this was a more extravagant, luxurious take on it. I also love spinach dip, and this reminded me of it, but without the excessive mayonnaise, the MSG-laced spice mixture, or the pounds of parmesan that go into a hot artichoke version. The bread crumbs on top were a welcome textural element, especially for a Thanksgiving table, where stuffing, mashed potato, and even the tender juicy turkey, all lack an essential crunchiness. Not that you would want your mashed potatoes to be crunchy, but it is a sensation for your mouth often missing from this meal.
I told my mom about this dish when I spoke to her on the phone this weekend, and before I could finish explaining what it was, she had already confirmed that this, indeed, would be our Thanksgiving vegetal offering. Challenge met, and challenge exceeded! Now I just have to wait for the end of November…