"Chocolate is a vegetable," read a sticky note placed on the refrigerator door in the kitchen of the office where I worked some years ago. I smiled when I read it — that chocolate could be consumed with other vegetables, a culinary path I was not interested in exploring at the time. Then something happened.
The inspiration for the dish I am sharing today came from three sources: fresh spinach from the farmers market; a Food & Wine recipe for spinach and goat cheese quiche; and my husband's use of grated chocolate on cooked leafy greens and other savory dishes.
Fresh spinach (Spinacia oleracea) comes in bunches of whole plants or as mature loose leaves (it also comes as baby spinach, which is great in salads). I find spinach irresistible for its glorious greenness and how easily I can turn it into a side dish. Fresh spinach is flavorful, cooks fast and can be paired with savory flavors (like pancetta) or sweet (like raisins and toasted pine nuts).
I am not sure if children nowadays know about Popeye but the spinach-eating cartoon was popular in Italy when I was a child (as Braccio di Ferro), and his example worked wonders with my brother so that his dislike for vegetables did not include spinach. Sometimes my mother took advantage of the situation by calling other dark leafy greens she prepared "spinach" so he would eat them.
After reading the Food & Wine quiche recipe quickly (speed is something I advise against with recipes as it can lead to an unhappy ending), I thought it called for the goat cheese to be layered between the spinach and the crust, rather than used as a topping. Closer inspection revealed my misunderstanding, but the idea of goat cheese filling kept buzzing in my mind and I had to see how it would play out between two layers of cooked spinach.
My husband uses dark chocolate (70 percent cacao), finely grated using a Microplane, to finish some of the savory dishes he cooks. (He did not like chocolate when we first met so I take full responsibility for the consequences of my influence on him.) I decided to follow his example. As I did not want any sweetener in my dish, I used 100 percent cocoa mass (unsweetened chocolate). Much as I love chocolate, I admit I was a bit skeptical, until I tasted the result of my experiment: a cheesy vegetable dish with a dessert note — a delicious surprise.
Serve this dish with a fried egg on the side to make a deconstructed crustless quiche. I like to accompany it with a salad of greens, root vegetables and fruit, which I wrote about in a previous column ("Take Time for Salad," March 23, 2023).
Spinach with Cheese and Chocolate
This recipe is for one but multiplies easily. You can cook the spinach ahead of time then assemble and bake the dish close to serving time. Berbere, a warm and fragrant Ethiopian spice mix, is available at the North Coast Co-op.
6 ounces fresh spinach, clean weight
1 ½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 ½ ounces red spring onion, diced small
2 garlic cloves, minced, or 1 tablespoon minced green garlic (white and light green parts only)
A pinch of berbere
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
½ ounce fresh chèvre
½ ounce mild cheddar or gouda
1 teaspoon finely chopped cocoa mass (unsweetened chocolate)
Wash the spinach gently with cold water and drain, letting a little water cling to the leaves. Chop the spinach, dicing the stems finely.
Warm the olive oil in a skillet on medium heat. Add the onion and stir to coat. Turn down the heat to low and cook for 6 minutes or so, until soft, stirring often. Add the garlic and stir. After 1 minute, sprinkle in the berbere and stir.
Add the spinach and when it starts to wilt, stir, cover and cook until tender (5-6 minutes or as needed), stirring often. Sprinkle the sea salt and stir. Take off the heat and set aside until ready to finish the dish.
Heat the oven to 375 F.
Crumble the fresh chèvre. Grate the other cheese.
Spread half of the cooked spinach in an even layer in a 12-ounce soufflé dish (5-inch diameter, 2-inch height). Dot with the goat cheese. Add the rest of the spinach in an even layer. Distribute the grated cheese on the spinach.
Place the dish on a cookie sheet. Bake until hot throughout (8-10 minutes). Take out of the oven and sprinkle the chocolate on the grated cheese. Broil briefly (1 minute at low setting, less if the setting is high only, no need to pre-heat) to melt the topping (without burning).
Take the cookie sheet out of the oven, transfer the dish onto a plate and serve.
Simona Carini (she/her) also writes about her adventures in the kitchen on her blog pulcetta.com and shares photographs on Instagram @simonacarini. She particularly likes to create still lives with produce from the farmers market.