Spinach, in all its leafy-green, nutrition-dense glory, is back.
After last fall’s E. coli foodborne-illness scare, which led restaurants nationwide to pull the vegetable from their menus, spinach quickly returned to its significant place in restaurants. Its versatility is one of the main reasons why.
“Spinach is versatile, and we’re able to use it as a component in many different menu applications,” says Thomas Swan, director of research and development for the 40-unit Maggiano’s Little Italy , a division of Dallas-based Brinker International Inc.  “We serve spinach salads [and] creamed spinach, use spinach as a bed for protein entrées and feature it as an ingredient in our pasta dishes.”
Spinach is high in vitamins A, C, K and folate and also is a good source of iron and magnesium. It also features lutein, an antioxidant that protects against macular degeneration, or loss of eyesight.
“Our research has shown Maggiano’s guests enjoy the healthful and nutritional value of spinach,” Swan says.
Maggiano’s recently debuted a popular steak and Gorgonzola salad with arugula and spinach, Swan says. Its popularity, he adds, comes from guests who “appreciate a lighter-fare option at lunch while at the same time, the iron-rich red meat provides nutrients and satisfaction to get them through their day. Our guests agree that the flavor profile created by tossing the greens with steak, blue cheese, candied walnuts and vinaigrette is amazing.”
When a nationwide E. coli outbreak was traced to spinach from large California farms, Maggiano’s was among the many chains that were forced to re-evaluate their menus. The concept considered which substitutions would be appropriate for each recipe and what items would adhere to Maggiano’s standards.
“In many cases, we substituted asparagus as a side item or garnish,” Swan says. “Because we communicate regularly with the chefs in our restaurants, we were able to immediately roll out new recipes to 40 restaurants around the country.”
Youssef Hammi, chef at the 10-year-old, 125-seat Himmarshee Bar & Grille in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., put spinach back on the menu as soon as the federal safety officials gave the go-ahead.
“Spinach is a wonderful leaf vegetable,” Hammi says. “It goes with everything from steak to poultry or fish. I serve it with roasted chicken and charcoaled onions from the grill with apple wood and roasted corn.”
He cautions, however, that too much spinach tends to “dull” the dish.
“Too much of it can take away from the dish on the whole,” says Hammi, who also serves a spinach and ricotta gnocchi with nutmeg. “Flavors that go well with spinach include garlic and shallots. The flavor of spinach is very mild when you wilt it. You need to enhance the flavor but not to do too much with it. Some people like to use bacon with it, but I personally find that overpowering.
“We sauté the sweetbreads and wilt the spinach, and we use a sage-brown-butter sauce. Sage is a very good accompaniment for spinach.”
Last fall’s E. coli outbreak led to shortages after producers, distributors and restaurants got rid of their stock, but that has eased, Hammi says.
“The industry needed some time to come back,” he says. “Prices have come down again. A 10-pound case is down to $16.”
Hammi plans to use spinach with more variety.
“I’d like to see it used in a more versatile way,” he says. “I’m thinking about crispy, fried spinach leaves as a garnish. It’s healthier than chips. It’s also good mixed with other greens in salads.”
Chris Ward, chef-owner of the Mercury Grill in Dallas and corporate chef for the M Group says: “I’ve never used the traditional spinach that caused all the trouble last year. I always use the baby spinach. It’s more tender in a quick sauté.”
He suggests snipping the stem from the leaf on baby spinach.
“It is edible, but aesthetically it doesn’t look very good,” Ward says.
A popular dish for the ever-changing Mercury menu includes “spinach, arugula and basil that we blanch and chop up super fine and mix with ricotta cheese and stuff pasta with it,” he says. “It has a very mild flavor to it. Right now, I have duck confit ravioli with it. I serve it with a brown-butter-sage sauce.”
Another substitute for spinach would be watercress, he says.
“Artichokes and spinach are made for each other. You can chop them up, but artichokes are very expensive,” Ward adds.
Fresh spinach is a food that customers seek when they eat at restaurants rather than at home.
“The effort that goes into it for the yield for most people isn’t worth it,” Ward says. “The labor in the restaurant can take care of it. Mom isn’t going to sit at home and take six bags of spinach to get four helpings.”
Preparations for spinach are as varied as the chefs who use it.
At Zhanra’s in St. Augustine, Fla., executive chef John Doering serves grilled ahi tuna over wilted baby spinach with saffron butter and toasted pine nuts. He also includes it in a white pie of ricotta cheese, sautéed spinach, onions, shallots and garlic flambéed and then finished with Asiago and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Chef Salvador Martinez at Le Diplomate Cafe in Brea, Calif., offers spinach and lemon linguine with tomatoes, bell peppers and capers all tossed in a tequila-lime-white-wine sauce and then topped with margarita-grilled shrimp.
And at Steve’s Wood Fired Pizza in Boca Raton, Fla., chef-owner Steve Greenberg has a spinach-artichoke dip that features hand-cut artichokes, chopped spinach mixed in a house-made creamy base and sprinkled with Parmesan. He also features a baby spinach and grilled eggplant pizza with mozzarella, red onions and sun-dried tomatoes.
Swan of Maggiano’s says: “Spinach is a versatile dish that can be served numerous ways, hot or cold. Spinach also serves as a base that accentuates the flavor of ingredients layered on top of it—such as garlic, sun-dried tomatoes or anchovies.
“These gourmet touches can add new life to traditional spinach dishes,” he says. “By incorporating a new flavor, you might even be able to convince your kids to finish their vegetables.”