My family historically preferred their green vegetables a bit gilded. When I was growing up, my dad was famous for the cheese sauce he made for the ubiquitous watery frozen vegetables that always appeared between the protein and starch of the day. This, as I recall, involved grating large amounts of Hoffman’s Super Sharp processed cheddar into a bowl, adding milk, and microwaving it in careful bursts, stirring in between, until there was a smooth pourable sauce that would then congeal into a plasticky exoskeleton on top of the broccoli florets or soggy brussels sprouts.
We often spent our fancy family gatherings at the Covenant Club, a Jewish social club that my great-grandparents belonged to that was famous for very few things, culinarily speaking, but whose creamed spinach was without peer. The club closed in the early or mid-’80s, but ask Jewish person in Chicago of a certain age about it, and nine times out of ten, they will mention the creamed spinach.
If creamed spinach is on the sides menu at a restaurant, my family will order it. We are often disappointed. Chefs will get ambitious about the recipe, adding things like garlic, jalapeños, and other bonus nonsense. Which defeats the point of creamed spinach. Creamed spinach is supposed to be soothing nursery food, comfort on a spoon. It should taste mostly of spinach and dairy. It should not be soupy, require a knife, or be overly seasoned. It is the mashed potatoes of green vegetables, and if you feel otherwise, you are entitled to be wrong.
My grandmother once finagled the recipe out of the chef at the Covenant Club, but we both suspected that he left out an ingredient or two. No matter: between the two of us we sussed it out. Now it’s the green vegetable that I make for any holiday gathering because we were never really wedded to the green bean casserole, and a roasted brussels sprout always seems a bit basic, no matter how much you garnish it. Holiday vegetables and dinner party cooking are not supposed to be virtuous, they are supposed to be celebratory, and for me and mine, nothing is more special than a large vat of creamed spinach. Even better, you can make it ahead and stash in the fridge or even freeze it. Then just reheat it in a low oven and maybe add a bonus splash of fresh cream just before serving.
Serves 8-10 as a side dish
- 6 Tbsp. butter
- 4 Tbsp. flour
- 1 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 1/2 medium yellow onion, minced fine
- 1/4 cup water
- 4 (10-oz.) packages frozen chopped spinach, drained and squeezed to remove as much moisture as possible
- 8 oz. cream cheese, softened and cubed
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- Ground white pepper to taste
Over medium-low heat, melt three tablespoons of the butter in a small saucepan. Sprinkle the flour over the butter and then the salt. Whisk until it is all creamed together, then cook for one minute until it smells nutty and the color has deepened just slightly. Stir in the milk a splash at a time, whisking to make smooth. Increase the heat to medium and whisk in the cream. Add the nutmeg. Whisk constantly until the mixture has thickened to the consistency of pudding. This is your white sauce. Set it aside.
Remove from heat and set aside to cool slightly.
Melt the remaining three tablespoons of butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. When the butter stops foaming, add the onions and cook until softened and translucent. Add the spinach and water to pan, stir to mix the onion through, then lower the heat and cover. Cook covered for about three to four minutes, stirring frequently, until spinach is fully heated through. Season with salt and ground white pepper to taste.
When spinach is hot, stir in the white sauce, cream cheese, sour cream, and Parmesan cheese. Stir well and simmer until completely blended and hot. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.
This dish can be made two to three days in advance and reheated in a low oven. It can also be frozen for up to three months.