American Classics I: Spinach Salad

In Front of the US Flag / Kitchen

GUEST: Caveman

    [AB speaks front of an American flag] Greetings, food fans. Alton Brown here. I don't know if you've noticed, but it seems that, in the last few years, everyone with a limousine and a larynx has pumped out a CD of American "standards". You know, those tunes that are supposedly ageless and unabashedly American. Yet at the very same time, it seems that any and all interest in American food classics has been swept away by a flood of foreign flavors.
    I'm afraid that we're losing our American culinary heritage and I just can't have that. [the flag rises revealing the kitchen behind it] Which is why I've taken the liberty of going through two or three hundred American cookbooks and writing down about 60 dishes that I think truly sum up the American food experience [AB turns the handle on a drum, containing recipe cards]. In a moment, I will reach my hand into this hopper and whatever I pull out will get the full "Good Eats" treatment, meaning that we'll fuss and fidget over every detail as though our lives depended on it. And what's more, today, there's not going to be any of that funny business. No stupid characters ...

CAVEMAN: [walks past pulling the fake cow model]

... or hokey special effects. [small UFO swings by on a string] Nope. We're just going to make a down, dirty, honest cooking show. Ohh, let's get to it. Today's American classic is ...

["Good Eats" theme plays]

The Kitchen

    Today's American classic dish: spinach salad which is a strange case. Unlike other classic salads, say, the Cobb or the Waldorf or even the Caesar, the origins of the spinach salad, very hazy. For instance, a book that I often go to for research on these things, the 1962 edition of "The Joy of Cooking"—which contains instructions for skinning a squirrel—makes no mention of spinach salad whatsoever. But that's okay, because I think the real secret to the origin of this salad does not lie in a book, but rather in geography itself. Specifically, a point on the map right about here. [points to Pennsylvania]

On A Country Road

GUESTS: Amish Man #1 and #2

    [AB is dressed in an Amish costume, complete with a beard and riding a horse-drawn buggy] I'm undercover here in Pennsylvania, because I suspect that this is actually the birthplace of the modern spinach salad. Now a little bit of history:
"Pennsylvania Dutch"? Wrong phrase. See, actually, "Dutch" is an Americanized version of "Deutsch". So the folks that we call the Amish and the Mennonites, were generally of German heritage, not Dutch, okay? Now one of the dishes that the Germans brought over when they emigrated was a salad; a special salad, served in springtime, composed of dandelions, bacon drippings, vinegar—does this sound familiar?—and eggs, usually a poached or hard-boiled egg.

AB: [the buggy passes AM #1 & #2, he sits back and nods his hat]
AM #1 & #2: [they nod in return]

    Supposedly, the egg was a symbol not only of physical renewal, but of spiritual renewal as well. Now I suspect that that's how it became the spinach salad. Why do I think that it happened here when it could have happened in other German communities, like, say, Milwaukee or San Antonio? Well, we'll get to that later. First, let's deal with these eggs. Giddy up, there, pony! Giddy up now!

The Kitchen

    It is impossible to make a classic spinach salad without hard-cooked eggs. Now one might think that fresher is always better, ...

AB: [retrieves an egg from under the papier-mâché chicken] Thank you.

... but when it comes to in-shell cooking, a couple of weeks in the fridge will actually help by weakening the membrane in between the white, or albumin, and the shell. And that will make them, of course, a lot easier to peel once they're cooked.
    Now notice when I said "cooked", I didn't say "boiled". Truth is, is I think the traditional cauldron of boiling water is too violent for egg cookery. Too much heat is transferred through the shell and that can result in rubbery whites and grainy, dark-tinged yolks. And that's a bad thing. Is there an answer? Yes, the electric kettle.
    Now the Brits have been using these devices for decades as a way to always have hot water on hand for making tea. Those early models had the heating element right up inside the water container and they'd tend to just boil until they were turned off. The modern units actually have an enclosed heating element under here. And best of all, they turn off when they reach a boil which is perfect for eggs.

    So in this case, I'm going to drop in four, and make sure that they are covered by at least one inch of cold water, and just turn it on and let the kettle do the work.

Never leave home with small electrics on.

    [the kettle snaps to off] There. When the kettle turns itself off, set your timer to 15 minutes and leave those alone.
    After 15 minutes, drain your eggs and then fill the kettle with cold water. In just a couple of minutes, the eggs will be cool enough to peel. And you do want to get them peeled. Because as they cool down, that outer membrane will start to re-bind with the shell and that can make for considerable frustration down the line.
    Now I realize that, if you know how to turn on a television set odds are you know how to, you know, peel a hard-cooked egg. But this is how I do it, you know, just in case. Just kind of rap it softly, while turning it. The goal here is to create kind of a network of faults, little fault lines. There. It's broken all around. Now it's easy enough to just get under that membrane and you should be able to peel it, pretty much all in one piece like that. If it gives you any trouble, just give it a little run under water.
    The only question remaining: Is it done? Only one way to find out. It requires just a pinch of salt. It's a very scientific move here. [salts the egg] Once it's completely covered with kosher salt ... [takes a bite] I'd say that's just about perfect. Creamy, creamy white. The egg yolk is nice and bright. It's a good thing. Oh, by the way, this recipe only needs two eggs. One of the four is to check for doneness, and the other is, well, you know, a snack.

Peeled, hard cooked eggs can be refrigerated in a
sealed container of cold water for up to a week.

Harry's Farmers Market
Atlanta, GA – 10:15am

    The word "bacon" has different meanings depending on where you are. In Europe, "bacon" usually refers to one half of a fattened pig. In Ireland and Canada, "bacon" refers to cured meat from the loin on the back of the animal. But here in The United States, we're talking about side meat taken from between rib number five and the hip bone. It is then usually cured, usually smoked, but sometimes smoked without being cured, and sometimes cured without being smoked.

[Pig Chalkboard Sketch]

Shoulder       Loin
Butt                            L
Pork             Side         G

    Bacon is available sliced into individual rashers, which come either in thick or standard sizes. Or you can get slab bacon, which comes in a whole flitch. Now, although it's a little tougher to find, and you have to slice it up yourself, I'm a slab guy all day long.
    Now although it delivers a sublime symphony of salty, smoky, and crunchy, our main concern here is the fat itself, which will serve dual duty as both dressing base and sole cooking agent.

In America in the 1930's and 1940's spinach was a slang term for nonsense.

The Kitchen

    If you went with the thick-cut bacon, then you can completely ignore the next 30 seconds of this program. [it's actually 1 minute] But if you went with the slab bacon—and I certainly hope you did—it could be a little on the slimy and slippery side. So take a little precaution before cutting. If it came home in butcher paper, then you're already halfway there. If not, just break out a piece of freezer paper or parchment. Kind of wrap it up, nice and tight; swaddle it, if you will. There you go. And lay it, curved side up, nice and tight.
    Now, as for knife selection, you don't want to do a lot of sawing. You want a clean cut. So, use the longest thing you've got: either a slicer, a long chef's knife like this or, of course, a 14-inch scimitar would do very nicely. So, make sure that you've got it held tight and make your cut. Now if it's really, really, really difficult, you can always freeze the meat briefly before you start cutting and it will firm up a little bit. I'm looking for anywhere from kind of a, about a quarter inch would be nice. Don't worry about the paper. We can get rid of that later.
    Cooking bacon on a stovetop can lead to greasy counters and charred pork. The safe bet, roast it. Stretching your rashers out on a cooling rack like this will keep them nice and flat. The sheet pan will capture the drippings for later use. Now start in a cold oven, turn to 400 degrees, and cook 15 to 20 minutes or until it's nice and crispy. Now you're going to want to cool and crumble the bacon. Drain off the fat, reserving three tablespoons for our hot dressing, which will also contain ...

Harry's Farmers Market

    Vinegar may mean "sour wine" in French, but it appears just as often in the sweet and sour cuisine of Germany, as it does in that of their oft-occupied neighbors to the west. What was once a lovely wine is now a slightly acidic solution in which most of the alcohol has been metabolized by a family of bacteria known as acetobacters. The resulting liquid has been used for centuries as a condiment, a medicine, a hair tonic, and half of the greatest salad dressing ever invented.
    Now, good vinegars such as those produced via the orleans [pron: or-lee-AWN] process, spend months in wooden barrels slowly developing substances called esters, which give them a deeper flavor. Mass produced vinegars usually use cheap wine and very little time.
    Now we're also going to require a wee bit of Dijon mustard which is made from crushed brown or black mustard seeds. And like other mustards, it gets its characteristic kick from a chemical reaction that occurs when the broken seeds come in contact with water. Now by adding either vinegar or wine to the mix, mustard makers can stop the reaction in its tracks locking the flavor in place forever. Not only will it bring flavor to the party, mustard's microscopic particles will help to emulsify the bacon fat and the vinegar keeping them together when they hit the salad.
    Now, let us consider one of the more unusual, albeit classic elements in this salad, which takes us back to Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Lancaster, PA*

GUESTS: Amish Man #1 and #2

    Once upon a time, Agaricus bisporus—the white mushroom—was cultivated in caves around, and even in, the sewers of Paris. The knowledge migrated, eventually, to England and then to America where mushroom seeds, or spawns, were perfected. Now throughout the 19th century, this entire area was known for flowers, especially carnations, which were grown in large greenhouses.
    In the 1890's, a couple of Quaker growers decided to try to make use of the area beneath the raised carnation beds. Burlap curtains were hung, and mushrooms were planted. What started as a sideline became a major industry, mostly because of the area's proximity to several large cities, and to rail lines, which make fast shipment possible. And there was, and is, a large abundance of horse manure in the area which is used to produce the compost that the mushrooms grow in. But don't worry, it's pasteurized. It doesn't even smell. Today, Pennsylvania is the undisputed mushroom capital of The United States.
    Now let's see. German settlers, bacon dressing on dandelions, eggs, zillions of mushrooms. You know, it was just a matter of time before ...

[an Amish Country Road, AM #1 and #2 walk by each other, bump and some of their food in their baskets transfers to other's]

AMISH MAN #1: I believe thou hast got thine salad in my mushrooms.
AMISH MAN #2: Oh, I'm sorry, but I believe thou hast got thine mushroom in my salad.
AM #1 & #2: [both each take a bite of the mix, grunt a "mmm" in approval and walk off]

Harry's Farmers Market

    By and large, when purchasing mushrooms you want to look for whole specimens, free of wrinkles, bruises, wet or soft spots. They shouldn't be spongy. Now as far as white button mushrooms go, remember, the gills should always be closed. Tempting though they may be, resist pre-sliced mushrooms. Once they're exposed to air, the flesh of any mushroom goes downhill quickly. So anything you gain in convenience will definitely be lost in quality.
    Oh, a few words about dirt. If you don't really see any, then just assume that your mushrooms are clean enough to use as is. If they look a little scruffy, you can give them a quick rinse under cold water. Washing will not result in a waterlogged mushroom, unless of course you give them a very long leisurely soak, which we won't. Now for this salad, we only need four large white button mushrooms, about doorknob size. But the rest of these, well, that's another show.

Most mushrooms continue growing after they are harvested.

Harry's Farmers Market

    Now the Pennsylvania Dutch may have enjoyed dandelion salad as a rite of spring. But you know, that weed's never really got much in the way of culinary respect in this country. So it makes sense that they would eventually reach for a more accepted early riser, spinach, which the 12th century food writer, Ibn al-Awam, called, "The Prince of Vegetables."
    Now, several types are cultivated in this country and are available both in spring and in fall. Let's see, here we have the crinkly Savoy spinach. One of my favorites, there is a hybrid, semi-Savoy. And that, of course, is a flat-leaf which is generally available in both the mature and the baby forms. Oh, I shouldn't leave out this one. This is a red-veined spinach. Looks kind of like beet greens, but it actually is indeed a spinach. Now I find that either the Savoy or the semi-Savoy works best in this salad because the leaves don't really fall apart when they wilt, and they don't lie flat against the bowl.
    Now, as far as the form goes, I really do like them just loose like this, but you can also get them in bunches, and triple-washed in bags. But you know, I just don't trust these things, because washing kind of accelerates decomposition and that can be blocked by the bag itself. So I'll just keep the washing to myself.
    You always want to look for leaves that are dark green, very crisp, and are free of discoloration. Any slimy spots, excess gooeyness and what-not should be avoided. Dirt's okay. We'll deal with the dirt.

The Kitchen

    Since it's usually grown in sandy soils, spinach requires a lot of washing. And I don't mean just a little shower. I mean a bath in water that is deep enough for any dislodged sand to sink down away from the leaves. Big batches may even need a change of water. Now, after the bath, any surface agua on the leaves will have to go. So you're either going to have to roll this all up in a paper towel or go for a spin. 8 Ounces Fresh Spinach

East Cobb Park

    [AB is sitting on a merry-go-round which begins to spin faster as he talks] I remember the day that I learned all about centrifugal and centripetal forces. I was four, and clinging to a runaway [playground] merry-go-round propelled by some overzealous third-graders. I decided at one point just to let go, and suddenly found myself flying off into the side of a trash can at Mach 2. The results haunt me to this day. Of course, luckily, these forces can be used for good. For instance, making astronaut trainees pass out, doing blood work, wringing water out of clothes in the spin cycle, and of course, spinning the water off of greens like spinach.
    Now the forces that do the actual work will be provided by nature. The machine that will take care of that, however, we have to provide ourselves.

AB: Jane, get me off this crazy thing!

The Kitchen

    The salad spinner is really a simple device. Just a kind of plastic colander that fits inside a base with a little pivot point. The real difference between models comes in the drive mechanism. Now this one has a crank, which can get up a lot of speed. But it gets out of balance, and, ... ugh. No thanks.
    This is a bit of an improvement. It's especially popular with you guys who like to mow the lawn. You just pull this cord, and you can get a good bit of speed, but... [the lid comes off as AB demonstrates].
    Well, maybe we'll try out the plunger model. Now this doesn't seem to be plagued by all the other problems that the other machines have. Just use the old Archimedes screw. It's got a nice little brake on it, and ... nice and dry greens. Now lest you think this is a uni-tasker, you can also dry pasta in here, and yes, that is something I would do.
    Our last piece of software isn't exactly traditional, but I do find that one small red onion, frenched—that is, cut excruciatingly thin—adds color and an earthy pungency that helps to hold the salad together.

    And now we build. Three tablespoons of our reserved bacon fat goes into a large, heavy, stainless steel bowl, directly over the heat, and that is on low. You just want to heat that up until you just start to see a little bit of ripple in there. 3 Tbs. Reserved Bacon Fat
    Then we're going to whisk in three tablespoons of red wine vinegar, one teaspoon of sugar, half a teaspoon of our Dijon mustard. Not only will that add flavor, but it'll be a nice emulsifying agent. A good bit of heat is just going to come up the sides. That's good. We're going to use that heat. I'm going to add a little bit of salt, a few grinds of pepper. 3 Tbs. Red Wine Vinegar
1 tsp. Sugar
½ tsp. Dijon Mustard
Kosher Salt & Freshly Ground
    Black Pepper To Taste
    Go ahead and kill the heat. There's enough heat up in the side of the bowl now. And when that starts to look creamy, we'll add the spinach just in handfuls. And the onion on top, and the mushrooms. 1 Small Red Onion, Thinly
4 Large White Mushrooms,

    Hold everything else out and just grab your tongs and flip. Basically, what we're doing is, we're coating, but we're also trying to move the heat from the sides of the bowl into the spinach, wilting it ever so slightly. Just keep turning, keep turning. Keep it moving, or some of the leaves will over-wilt. There, that looks good.

    Now, plate up. And we'll add, at the last moment, some of the eggs. I like them right on top. And the bacon. And the only thing missing, a fork. Hard Cooked Eggs
Cooked Bacon

The major spinach growing states are California and Texas, where spinach grows best during mild winter months.

The Kitchen

GUEST: Popeye

    Mmm, mmm, I gotta tell you, this is delicious. But I think the real question is, is spinach really good for you? I don't think there's any real way to ... ummbh .....  ackahaaa .......... ahhhhhh! [AB jerks around and falls to the floor behind the counter, he emerges hopping over the counter with bulging arms, sailor outfit and corncob pipe, a la Popeye The Sailor Man]

POPEYE: Ahh, shiver me timbers. Check out all these musculls. I yam what I yam, and what I yam is ripped in a kind of... from a distance, you can't see, anyway. And I owe it all to me spinaches, which are packed with iron and calcium, and oxalic acid, which slows the body's absorption of iron and calcium, which kind of... [his arms "pop"] It's humiliating. I've had all I can stand, and I can't stands no more!
    Luckily, spinach is still an excellent sources of vitamins A and K, potassiums and magnesiums and coppers and riboflavins, some of the niacins, vitamins B6 and calciums and phosphorus and zincs, and a little bit of some proteins, too. So kids, you gots to eat your spinach!

    [takes a pipe out of his mouth. speaking normally] And don't smoke! [throws pipe away]
    Now I do feel that we have cracked the code for warm spinach salad. But what if you wanted something a little creamier. Something cooler. Something that might, I don't know, stand up to a couple of hours on the buffet? Well, you could use the same ingredients, in the same amounts, only with a different technique.
    We begin with the egg yolks which we have harvested from our hard-cooked eggs. Those will go into a mixing bowl and just mash them up with a fork. So, what's with the egg yolks? Well, they're going to provide body, for one thing, and they're also going to act as an emulsifying agent keeping this dressing together so it won't separate for a few hours.
    And now, the vinegar. There. Now when it starts looking nice and creamy, switch to a whisk and we'll add the sugar. And add the mustard, the bacon fat. Uh, you may have to warm this up in the microwave a little bit just to make sure it's liquidous. And go ahead and add a little bit of salt, a few grinds of pepper. There we go. And fold in the spinach. Then the onions and the mushrooms, just as before. But this time, I'm going to use my hands, because it's not burning hot! Toss thoroughly, and serve, topped with the bacon and the egg whites.

In Front of the US Flag / Kitchen

    [AB is once again standing in front of an American flag] Well food fans, I hope that you have found our first "American Classics" episode to be a tasty one. As for our next episode, well, we'll just have to wait and see what issues forth from the Great Spinning Cage of Culinary Chaos. Whatever it is, rest assured it will be good eats.

The Orleans Method: from

  1. Wooden barrels are laid on their sides. Bungholes are drilled into the top side and plugged with stoppers. Holes are also drilled into the ends of the barrels.
  2. The alcohol is poured into the barrel via long-necked funnels inserted into the bungholes. Mother of vinegar is added at this point. The barrel is filled to a level just below the holes on the ends. Netting or screens are placed over the holes to prevent insects from getting into the barrels.
  3. The filled barrels are allowed to sit for several months. The room temperature is kept at approximately 85°F (29°C). Samples are taken periodically by inserting a spigot into the side holes and drawing liquid off. When the alcohol has converted to vinegar, it is drawn off through the spigot. About 15% of the liquid is left in the barrel to blend with the next batch.

*Not really. They filmed this portion and the mushroom scene in Georgia

Transcribed by Michael Roberts
Proofread by Michael Menninger

Hit Counter

Last Edited on 08/27/2010