Some food words just don’t go together. Crunchy and soggy. Tart and cloying. Gooey and crisp. Warm and salad. And yet, warm and salad are exactly the words to describe this week’s Bittman dish.
“50. Cook chopped onions in olive oil until soft. Add chopped spinach and a handful of raisins – maybe a little port, too – and cook until wilted and almost dry. Roasted pine nuts are good on top.”
I didn’t have any idea what this dish would be like when I set out to make it. N. wasn’t sure either, and particularly when he saw that I was combining spinach, raisins, and onions he was pretty suspicious.
We had no port in the house; I don’t drink it, and we don’t eat roasts all that often, which eliminates our need for a glazing agent, I didn’t have any in the house. So I poked around online for a while looking for substitution suggestions and then, unsatisfied with everything I found, made up my own out of balsamic vinegar, red wine, and a little sugar. Here’s what I used:
¼ cup red wine
2 TB sugar
½ cup raisins
1-2 TB olive oil
½ cup red onion, diced
1 lb. baby spinach
¼ cup pine nuts, dry toasted
Salt and pepper to taste
I combined the balsamic vinegar, wine, and sugar in a small saucepan and, after swirling it gently to distribute the sugar, let it come to a simmer on medium and left it alone to reduce for ten minutes or so while I prepped my vegetables.
As I prepared to sweat the onions in my biggest saucepan, I was struck with genius. Why not add the raisins to the “port” sauce? I dumped them in and continued to let the liquid just barely simmer, while the raisins plumped up and took on new, more exciting flavors from the vinegar and wine. Once genius had been attended to, and my other skillet was shimmering with its shallow pool of olive oil, I added the onions and cooked them gently for five or ten minutes until they were soft but not browned.
To my meltingly soft onions, I crammed as much spinach as the pan would hold, then tried to turn it over without dumping too much all over the stove. In less than a minute, it had wilted enough for me to add the rest of the spinach, the raisins, and their thick, syrupy sauce, now well simmered and nicely reduced. I tossed the whole thing together with tongs, and we scraped huge helpings onto our plates next to a big mound of (Stouffer’s, but I’m not ashamed) stuffing.
The ingredient list, the tongs, and the sweetness of the sauce made me think of salad. The raisins and spinach were good, but the “port” sauce was ridiculously delicious. It was sweet and tangy, with the wine and balsamic vinegar bouncing acidity off the caramel-sweet dissolved sugar. It had warmth and depth and would have been just as good poured over ice cream as it was over this strange salad. The pine nuts were a perfect crunch on top and the raisins added some intriguing chewiness. Finely diced and well fried bacon would also work well here, and make it even more like a warm spinach salad.
In poetry, juxtaposition is intended to draw the audience’s attention to a specific comparison created by placing dissonant words next to each other – an invasion of unfamiliarity that surprises, invites thought, and expands meaning. Here, it made for a gorgeous early Spring dish that clung to our lips, warmed our bellies, and left us sweetly satisfied.