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American Classics I: Spinach Salad - Recap

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Alton opens standing before a large American flag. He notes that over the last few years songs have extolled the virtues of much that is American – but not food. Classics of American cuisine have given ground before foreign competition, and to Alton, that's bad. The flag lifts into the sky to reveal Alton's kitchen, and on the counter a drum of the sort used in raffles. Alton has culled sixty or so classic American recipes from various sources, and their names now tumble freely inside the drum as Alton turns its crank. He'll choose one of these, and without using strange characters or bizarre props, he'll... at this point a caveman pulls a model cow decorated with the names of beef primals past the camera, as Alton watches bemusedly. As he spins the drum further a flying saucer on a wire zips by, accompanied by sound effects. Finally, Alton stops spinning and reaches into the drum. Extracting a card, he faces the viewers and declares that today's American classic is... and the Good Eats theme plays.

Today's classic turns out to be Spinach Salad. Unlike some other salads, like Cobb and Caesar, the origins of Spinach Salad are fairly hazy. A 1962 edition of The Joy of Cooking makes no mention of spinach salad, although it does explain how to skin a squirrel! Alton believes the secret of this salad's origin might be found – he spins a globe and stabs with his finger – in Pennsylvania.

To find out, Alton dons a straw hat and a beard to pass himself off as an Amish man. He suspects he's found the birthplace of the modern spinach salad, among the Pennsylvania Dutch. He notes that “Dutch” is an Americanized version of “Deutsch” which is the German name for themselves. The Amish and Mennonites are mostly of German antecedents, and one of the dishes they brought with them was a spring time dish, a salad made of dandelions, bacon drippings, vinegar and eggs. This sounds familiar... Alton passes two pedestrians and pauses his narration long enough to nod a polite greeting, before resuming. He suspects that this salad became the spinach salad. He'll explain why he believes this happened here (when there are other German communities) later. First, he'll deal with the eggs.

Classic spinach salad requires hard cooked eggs. And that means it's time for a talk on in the shell cooking. For this purpose fresh isn't necessarily better. A few weeks in the refrigerator will weaken the membrane between the white (albumin) and the shell, making eggs far easier to peel after cooking. And then there's the cooking method. Alton disdains boiling, claiming it engenders rubbery whites and grainy, dark-tinged yolks. His answer? The electric kettle. Brits have long used these devices to ensure a ready supply of heated water for tea. Early models featured immersed heating elements, and simply boiled water indefinitely. More modern units feature enclosed heating elements and thermostats that switch them off when they reach a boil – that keeps the water just under boiling, which Alton says is perfect for eggs. He drops in a number of eggs, turns on the kettle and lets it do the work.

When the kettle turns off, Alton sets a time for fifteen minutes. When that goes off, he drains the kettle and waits just a few minutes to peel the eggs. As the eggs cool, the membrane between albumin and shell will rebind to the shell, so Alton aims to peel his eggs while they're still very hot. To peel his eggs, he taps them on the counter all the way around, creating a network of fine cracks, and then rubs them between his palms a bit to expand that. With a little digging, the shell comes off his egg in about one piece. Is the egg done? Alton knows of just one way. He carefully dusts the egg with a pinch of kosher salt... and then bites into it! The white is creamy and the yolk still a bright yellow, exactly what he wants. This recipe actually needs half as many eggs as Alton prepared – the extras are for snacks!

Using a picture, Alton explains the various definitions of “bacon” in Europe, Ireland, Canada, and here in the United States (where it means side meat, usually cured and smoked but sometimes only one of these). It is available as rashers (slices) or as slabs. Alton prefers the slab variety, although he admits it's harder to find. And although bacon delivers salty, smoky crunch, here Alton's concern is for the fat itself, which will serve as both a cooking agent and a dressing base.

For those who purchased slab bacon, Alton next shows how to cut it. Those who purchased thick cut bacon can spend the next thirty seconds or so on something else! As a precaution, Alton wraps his bacon in butcher paper (freezer paper or parchment will also work) to prevent it from slipping. Then he lays that on the board, curved side up, and retrieves a large blade from his rack. The larger the blade, the better, since he's not looking to do a lot of sawing here. His is a 14” long blade curved like a scimitar. Using this, he cuts the bacon into pieces about a quarter inch thick. If cutting is very difficult, a brief period in the freezer firms the meat and makes cutting easier.

Alton next roasts his rashers. Frying creates a mess on the counter, so he prefers roasting. He lays them flat on a cooling rack set inside a half sheet pan; the rack permits heat circulation while the pan catches drippings. He sets an initially cold oven to 400° F and cooks fifteen to twenty minutes, or... until it is nice and crispy. He cools and crumbles the bacon, and reserves a quantity of the fat for use in the dressing, with vinegar.

Back at the store, Alton selects a bottle of red wine vinegar, explaining as he does how acetobacter ferment wine into vinegar. Specifically, these microorganisms digest the alcohol and secrete acetic acid. Vinegar has seen centuries of use as everything from hair tonic to medicine to seasoning, including salad dressing. High quality vinegar starts as decent wine and spends a good deal of fermentation time in a wooden cask, developing complex flavor compounds called esters. Cheap vinegar starts with cheap wine and spends very little time fermenting. As is usually the case, one gets what one pays for.

Alton also stops to collect a bottle of Dijon mustard. Made from crushed black mustard seeds, it gets a kick from a chemical reaction that occurs when these broken seeds contact water. By adding vinegar or wine at the right time, mustard makers can halt that reaction and freeze the flavor. Mustard will add some flavor to the dressing, and its particles will help keep the bacon fat and vinegar mixed as an emulsion.

These ingredients to hand, Alton turns his attention to another of the classic ingredients: agaricus bisporus, better known as the white mushroom. That means a trip back to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Flashlight in hand, Alton visits a small shed containing many flats, each crowded with white mushrooms. Originally grown in caves (and even sewers) near Paris, people carried them first to England and then to America. In the nineteenth century, carnations were a huge business, and growers decided to see what might be done with the area under the raised beds. They hung burlap curtains and planted the fungi. Mushrooms took off, in part because there were abundant customers nearby and easy means of shipping the perishable produce quickly to those farther away: rail lines. And, of course, there's plenty of manure to serve as compost material. Pasteurized to remove dangerous microorganisms, this material serves as a top quality growth medium. Today, Pennsylvania is the mushroom capital of the United States. Given this, it's not hard to understand how mushrooms might have found their way into a lot of foods, including salad.

Alton offers mushroom purchasing tips: look for whole specimens free of wrinkles, bruises, wet or soft spots. They shouldn't feel spongy. White (or button) mushrooms should be closed; that is, the gills should not be visible. Avoid pre-sliced mushrooms; once cut, they're flesh degrades quickly, meaning the purchaser trades conveniences for quality. Mushrooms lacking visible dirt do not require cleaning; “scruffier” specimens may require a light rinse. They will not soak up excessive amounts of water unless left immersed for a long period of time. Alton selects a few doorknob sized specimens.

The Pennsylvania Dutch may have enjoyed dandelion, but Americans tend not to. Eventually, another early vegetable found its way into the salad as a replacement: spinach, the “prince of vegetables” according to twelfth century food writer ibn al-Awam. Most stores carry crinkly Savoy, hybrid semi-Savoy, and flat leaf (often available in mature and baby versions). Less common is red-veined spinach, which looks a bit like beet greens. Alton chooses Savoy or semi-Savoy because the leaves don't fall apart when they wilt and don't lie flat. He also prefers loose or bundled spinach, avoiding those “triple-washed” bags. All that water accelerates decomposition, and the plastic doesn't help. Alton selects some loose spinach and will handle the washing when he gets back to his kitchen. He looks for crisp, dark green leaves free of discoloration or slimy spots. Dirt's okay.

Spinach usually grows in sandy soil. To remove that, Alton gives his a bath in a deep sink full of water. That depth allows the sand to settle so that it does not redeposit on the leaves. When he's sure he's got all the dirt off of a batch, he takes the leaves for a spin in a salad spinner. From a park's merry-go-round, Alton explains “centrifugal force” and how it can be exploited for a lot of useful tasks, such as processing blood, making astronaut trainees pass out, and, yes, removing water from produce. Alton rejects crank and pull cord powered spinners in favor of a device that uses a screw drive; the cook pushes down on a plunger to spin the salad dry. It also has a brake, and it's not even a uni-tasker: one can dry pasta in it, too.

The final piece of software isn't traditional, but Alton finds that a little red onion holds the salad together. He cuts his extremely fine.

He places a bowl over a low burner. In it is his reserved quantity of bacon fat. When it just sort of ripples he adds some wine vinegar, a bit of sugar, a bit of Dijon mustard, a little kosher salt and black pepper. When that looks creamy, he adds the spinach, onion and mushrooms and keeps turning it. This mixes the salad and moves some heat from the bowl into the leaves, wilting them ever so slightly. After he puts the salad in a bowl, he decorates the top with egg slices and bits of bacon.

Is spinach nutritious? Alton takes a few bites as he ponders the question, and then suddenly falls to the floor behind the counter as if in a spasm! Moments later, he pops up, dressed in sailor's garb and with a corncob pipe clenched between his teeth, and a set of enormous forearm muscles (each bearing a tattoo of an anchor). This “old salt” familiar to most movie and television watchers, reminds viewers that spinach contains iron and calcium, as well as oxalic acid (which slows absorption of these compounds). It's an excellent source of vitamins A and K, potassium, magnesium, copper, phosphorus and several B vitamins. And it contains a good dose of protein! So eat spinach (and don't smoke!)

What if you want something that will withstand a few hours on the buffet? Warm spinach salad won't do, but the same ingredients handled a bit differently will. Alton mashes up the egg yolks with a folk; they'll provide extra body to hold the dressing together for a few hours. To them, he adds the vinegar and mixes. When that's creamy he whisks in sugar and Dijon mustard, then bacon fat. Warm it in the microwave to make sure it's free flowing – it doesn't have to stay warm, but it might need to be warm for this part of the recipe. Salt, pepper, spinach, onions, mushrooms complete the dish; Alton tosses it thoroughly and serves it topped with the bacon and egg whites.

And that's the first American Classic. What will the next one be? Only time, and Alton's spinning cage, will tell. But Alton promises it will be Good Eats!