For a good portion of the year, when I use spinach I purchase the organic baby spinach that comes in plastic boxes. Advertised as "triple washed" it is generally pretty clean. It should probably receive a quick rinse, but it is never muddy and gritty. The price you pay for getting this rather pristine, ready-to-use product is that it lacks the flavor and the substance of the stuff that is available in season from local growers. During its season, when it is abundant and flavorful, I want to use local spinach—even if it requires a bit of extra work.
Unlike the baby spinach from the grocery store, the spinach you buy at your farmers' market will usually be pretty dirty. The grower may have given it a rinse of some kind, but even so it will most likely have quite a bit of embedded and very fine grit all over it. Spinach likes to grow in sandy soil. Even if you can't see it, you can feel the grit on your fingers when you touch the leaves. Before it can be used it needs a careful and thorough washing.
To wash the spinach, fill a large vessel with water—large enough so that the spinach can move about freely in the water. I use my kitchen sink (make sure you wash it well first), but if you prefer, you may use a large bowl. Add the spinach and swish it around to help dislodge the dirt. Then, leave it alone for a few moments while you do other kitchen tasks. It is important to allow it to sit because this gives the sand and grit that have been released from the leaves a chance to sink to the bottom of the container. After a few moments, whether you are using your sink or a bowl, lift the spinach out of the water (put it in a bowl...or a colander suspended over a bowl). Dumping the water and the spinach out (and into a colander) all at once will only serve to pour everything you just rinsed off of the spinach back onto it. You want to leave the sand and grit behind. After lifting out the spinach, drain the sink/pour the water out of the bowl, and rinse the sink/bowl. Fill your chosen vessel with water again and repeat the process until there is no discernible sand, grit or soil remaining in the container after the water has been removed (run your fingers over the bottom of the container—sometimes you will be able to feel what you can't see). It is no joke that sometimes you will have to repeat this process three, four...even more...times.
The reason I decided to dwell a bit on this process is that recently while rushing to get dinner on the table, I enlisted the help of someone for the washing of the spinach. I briefly explained the procedure, but didn't belabor it too much. A couple of times, when I noticed that they were racing through the process, I commented that it was OK to let the spinach sit for a minute to allow the water and gravity to do some of the work. But it was clear that they didn't think the spinach could be that dirty...it didn't really look very dirty and the water after a rinse or two looked clean.
Unfortunately, when we sat down to eat, we discovered that it was still faintly gritty. I had been too busy to pay close attention to what was going on in the sink. And in defense of the person who was helping me, it is hard to believe how important the rinsing process is until you have experienced the results of an inadequate rinse. It is impossible to "eat around" the grit...and there is nothing left but to not eat the spinach...or whatever the spinach has gone into. And who wants to go to a lot of work to prepare a meal/dish that you don't want to eat?
Anything that tends to be grown in sandy soils will need this same kind of treatment. Lettuces and all kinds of greens fall into this category. Leeks do too. Almost every time I teach a recipe that includes leeks I try to emphasize how important it is to thoroughly rinse them. As I do this, I always feel faintly guilty—as if I am somehow over-emphasizing the obvious. But then I have experiences like the one I had the other evening with the spinach and I realize that it really isn't so obvious after all.
I hope I haven't discouraged anyone from using the beautiful spinach available right now at the farmers' market. Washing the spinach thoroughly really isn't that much extra work. Once you have developed a system that works in your kitchen, cleaning the spinach prior to cooking it can be easily woven into the rest of the tasks that need to be done as you prepare for your meal. And you can always enlist the help of a family member or a friend. If you feed them a big plate of this tasty pasta that their efforts help to create, in the end I don't think they will mind the work so very much.
Gemelli with Spinach, Mushrooms & Ricotta
2 to 3 T. olive oil4 oz. crimini mushrooms, sliced 1/4-inch thick
2 to 3 spring onions, white plus some of the green, trimmed and thinly sliced
1/2 lb. spinach, ribs removed (you should have about 6 oz. stemmed spinach) and well rinsed. If the leaves are large, they should be roughly chopped.
8 oz. gemelli (or other short sturdy pasta)
1/4 c. (3/4 oz.) finely grated Pecorino
2 to 3 T. toasted pine nuts
2 to 2 1/2 oz. whole milk ricotta, room temperature (take the ricotta out of the refrigerator when you begin to cook the mushrooms)
Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a medium sauté pan set over moderately high heat. When the oil is almost smoking, add the mushrooms and sauté until golden and just tender. Reduce the heat to medium and add the onions along with a pinch of salt. If the pan seems dry, add another half tablespoon or so of olive oil.
When the onion is tender, begin adding the spinach to the pan a handful at a time, turning to coat in the oil as you add it and adding another handful as the previous one begins to collapse. Season sparingly with salt and cook until wilted and tender—covering the pan if necessary.
Meanwhile, drop the gemelli into a large pot of boiling, well-salted water (it works well to drop the pasta about the time you start to add the spinach to the mushrooms). Give the pasta a stir and cook at a rapid boil until al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving some of the pasta water.
Add the pasta to the pan with the spinach and mushrooms. Toss to combine. If the pasta seems dry, add a splash of the pasta water. Add most of the Pecorino and a generous drizzle of olive oil and toss again...adding more pasta water as necessary to coat the noodles with a light film of liquid (the pasta should be moist, but not soupy).
Divide the pasta among two or three plates and scatter the remaining Pecorino and the pine nuts over all. Top each plate of pasta with a large dollop of ricotta (to be stirred into the pasta by each diner) . Drizzle with more olive oil if you like. Serves 2 to 3.
• Recipe may be doubled for a whole pound of pasta which will serve four to six.
• Recipe was inspired by a simple pasta of spinach, pine nuts and ricotta in Martha Stewart's Everyday Food.