Corn Cooked in Husk

It’s corn season! I grew up in New England so corn season conjures up vivid childhood memories. Farmstands overflowing with corn, husking it with my beloved paternal grandmother at our kitchen table, my mother boiling it up in cauldrons of water, and biting into ears so fresh it tasted like candy.

Fast forward to my own kitchen, and being the safety conscious freak I am, I’m always reluctant to boil water on the stove top. We have a center island in the kitchen where the stove is located, and the kids love to sit, and pile paper, around that island. This led me to seek alternative corn cooking methods, and lo and behold: it can be baked in the oven, so long as the husk is intact. That’s right: you don’t have to bother shucking corn before cooking it. In fact the husk creates a perfect “envelope” in which the corn can steam.

So this is what you do: Preheat the oven to 350F; trim off any extraneous ends (or don’t, it probably doesn’t make any difference). Line up the corn on a cookie sheet:

rawcorn

… and stick it in the oven for 30 minutes. I had something else going in the oven so it was at 400F for about half the time. No harm, no foul. Once time has elapsed remove it:

cookedcorn

… and you have perfectly cooked ears of corn. Surprisingly, the outer husks cool almost immediately, but to peel off the very inner layers I had to protect my hands with an oven mitt or paper towel. Voila:

huskedcorn

… a perfectly cooked ear of corn. Delicious and juicy, with no cauldron required.

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Pretzels From God

I’ve been making homemade pretzels for the kids recently. No, not the kind you heat up from the freezer. The kind you make from strange items like flour and yeast.

pretzels

My fourteen year old said they taste like they were made by God. Well, if ever a cook has received a compliment, that is it! I used Alton Brown’s recipe but tweaked it a little. I used vegetable oil instead of butter, paid more attention to the dough texture than his ratio of ingredients (the texture is incredibly important since you have to shape and boil these) and eventually shaped them differently– the above picture shows Alton’s method. Good but not great.

My picky eaters devoured them like locusts and my oldest daughter has begged me to make them every day.

The irony is that I can’t eat them, as I have type 2 diabetes! I did try one bite to verify their verdict, and yes they are delicious. So go ahead and give these a try, you’ll never buy regular soft pretzels again!

No Knead Bread: Variation

noknead6

This is my version of the no knead bread technique popularized by Mark Bittman. I have (in my opinion) simplified and streamlined the process while improving the taste. I don’t bother with the boule shaping; I use more yeast, salt, and I utilize a very simple technique long employed in French bakeries for baguettes, namely, adding some of the dough from the previous batch of bread to the next batch. The net result of adding dough from one batch to the next is a constantly developing sourdough culture that, after about ten batches, produces a bread that tastes and feels very close to the sharp and spongy texture of true French bread (and is still yummy up through those ten batches). Since my kids are picky and don’t like rock hard crusts, I bake these in loaf pans, but if you are so inclined you could utilize a baguette pan (and shorten cooking time) for baguettes to call your own.

The first time you bake this bread you won’t have the sourdough culture. Simply set aside some of the dough to use the next time you make the bread, and so on. If you bake bread every day you can mix the new dough immediately with the reserved portion after shaping the last batch. If you make bread sporadically, simply put the portion of dough that will be your sourdough culture in a sealed container in the fridge. It will keep there indefinitely (and develop) until you’re ready to bake again.

The Basic Recipe

6 cups flour (stir and fluff the flour before measuring)
1 1/2 tbs SAF gold yeast (this is the only yeast I ever use)
1 tbs + 1/2 tsp salt
3 cups warm water
1-2 cups worth of dough from the last batch (obviously, not applicable the first time you make this)

Combine all these ingredient in a large bowl; use a spoon and mix by hand.

noknead1

Your dough will look gloppy and unappealing but don’t worry. Cover with a plastic bag or clean cloth and allow to rise at least 8 hours but no more than 12 hours.

Your loaves will need two hours to rise, so about three hours before you plan to eat the bread, scrape out the dough onto the counter.

noknead2

Using your plastic dough scraper, first divide off a small portion to add to the next batch. Then divide the remainder in half.

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Put each larger piece in bread loaf pans that have been sprayed generously with no-stick spray. The dough should be spongy and easy to handle.

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Cover the loaf pans with a warm cloth and allow to rise for two hours.

After two hours, uncover the dough and place the pans on a middle rack in a COLD oven. Set the oven to 375F and cook for 1 hour. If you prefer the crust to be hard, cook an extra fifteen minutes (crust will soften a few hours after cooling, so if it looks too hard don’t worry). After cooking, remove the bread from the pans immediately (they should come out easily) and allow to cool before eating.

 

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This bread makes delicious sandwiches though we usually eat it in slices with various toppings, like cream cheese, peanut butter, hummus, or butter.

noknead6

Faux Chocolate Croissants

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These are extremely delicious, and taste just like chocolate croissants, yet they don’t involve the all-day hassle of creating pastry crust.  I use a brioche-like bread dough, press it out flat, brush with butter, place on a layer of chocolate chips, then roll it up (similar to how cinnamon buns are made), but I cook them like stuffed bread without laying each segment out on a baking pan.  For a dessert, these are also low in sugar, though I’m not going to claim they’re good for you.

DOUGH
6 cups flour
1 1/2 tbs SAF gold yeast (please do not use any other kind yeast)
4 eggs
1/2 cup vegetable (canola) oil
1/2 cup sugar
2 tsp salt
about 2 cups water (see directions)

FILLING
1 stick butter, melted
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

WASH
1 egg
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Stir together the flour and yeast in the bowl of a standing mixer; add the remaining ingredients. except for the water.  With the dough hook begin to combine the ingredients, and slowly add the water, adding just enough water to create a soft but not sticky dough. The dough should like like so:

dough consistency

I allow my mixer to knead for about ten minutes.  After this is done, place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover with a cloth and allow to rise for about an hour, but not more than two hours.

Oil your work surface with a little oil.  I prefer to use an oiled, instead of a floured, surface.

oiled surface

Divide the dough into thirds,

three sections

…and using your hands flatten each piece into a rectangle like so (roughly 10 inches by 18 inches, but it needn’t be exact):

three sections flattened

Take your melted butter and using a pastry brush, or the back of a spoon, gently brush each section with a third of the butter.

three sections w butter

Next, distribute the 2 cups of chocolate chips evenly over each section.

three sections w chocolate chips

Then roll up the dough starting at a long side, like so:

rolled up

rolled up 2

You can pinch the seams to keep them closed.  Then transfer each section to a cookie sheet (don’t panic if they come apart while being moved, just pinch them back up on the cookie sheet) that has been sprayed with no-stick spray. Using very sharp scissors, snip the dough at ~2 inch intervals, cutting not quite all the way through.

cut dough

Cover loosely with plastic that has been sprayed with no-stick spray, and allow to rest for 30 minutes. Here I use a grocery bag that has been cut open to accommodate the width.

covered dough

15 minutes into the resting period, start your oven to 375F with the rack on the second to top slot. Prepare your egg wash by whisking together the egg and vanilla extract,

wash

and using a pastry brush gently paint the surface of the dough all over. Wait five minutes, and repeat.

dough w wash

Pop them in the oven for 23-25 minutes; you don’t want the bottoms to get too dark or hardened, this is the real trick in making these.  So check them toward the end of the baking period.

And there you go, an entire sheet of “chocolate croissants.”

out of the oven

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If you’re ever feeling masochistic, you can make real chocolate croissants using my homemade croissant recipe.

Huevos Haminados

huevos

While trawling the internet for ways to make eggs in the slow cooker, I stumbled upon a description of a Sephardic dish that cooks eggs over a long period at low simmer (for which a slow cooker is perfect). This began as a sabbath dish– since a fire could not be lit on the sabbath, jews created a number of dishes, like cholent, that cook slowly overnight on a fire lit before sunset.  Huevos haminados are eggs that are simmered over seven or more hours, and due to various chemical reactions within the egg, the egg white turns a yellow-gray color and takes on a meaty taste and texture, while the yolk becomes crumbly with a distinctive, pleasant, nutty taste.  I am not a big fan of egg dishes in general, and you couldn’t pay me to eat a traditionally hard boiled egg, but these slow cooked eggs taste nothing like rubbery hard boiled eggs and are quite delicious.  So delicious, in fact, that four of my picky kids wolfed them down happily.

The process is very simple, just make sure you plan ahead and put them in the slow cooker seven hours before you plan to eat (they can also be stored, once cooked, in the fridge). Place however many eggs you wish to make in a slow cooker and cover completely with water.  If desired, add some papery skin from onions, especially red onion, to color the shells. Place the lid on the slow cooker, set to LOW, and allow to cook for seven hours.

After seven hours have passed, peel them under cool water and serve with a sprinkle of salt.  We’ve also had these with barbecue sauce and peanut dressing.

Feeding People Cheaply

I thought it might be useful to the moms out there, or to the dads who cook, or to anyone who cooks, if I describe how I feed nine people cheaply and relatively healthfully.  I say “relatively” since people will have very strong, and differing, opinions on what constitutes healthy food and what does not.  For instance, we eat very little meat, and many delicious baked goods, so the low carbers out there would probably stare down their high protein noses at us.

Towards this end I’ll describe what I’m cooking on a particular day, and include the recipes, or links to the recipes.

I started out the day putting some tea in the slow cooker.  I usually put 6 cups water with 6 teaspoons (2 tbs) herbs in the slow cooker on high for 2 hours.  This makes a nice infusion.  You could probably do the same with tea bags, if you don’t buy tea or herbs in bulk.

Once home from the morning school run, I made cookie bars and whole wheat muffins.  I tend to do the bulk of my cooking during the day, and the kids and my husband just eat whenever after that point.  Because of differing schedules and palates, I’ve found it to be far more efficient both logistically and economically to have a cafeteria-style way of eating, where the food is prepared and they take what they want, when they want.  If a person doesn’t want to be lonely while eating, there is always someone around to keep them company, so it’s no big deal.

Cookie bars are the mainstay dessert around here.

cookiebar3

I make them pretty much every day, and any other desserts are secondary to that one.  Here is the recipe:

CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIE BARS
2 cups white flour
1 1/2 cups brown sugar, packed
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup vegetable (canola) oil
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1/4 cup water
1 cup chocolate chips

Combine the dry ingredients first, then add the wet; mix well (about 2 minutes with a standing mixer), then add the chocolate chips and combine well.  Bake in a brownie pan at 350F for 20 minutes.  However, test for doneness, as they may need a few more minutes. Allow to cool for a few minutes, then cut into squares with a plastic dough scraper.

WHOLE WHEAT MUFFINS
2 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 cup white sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup vegetable (canola) oil
1 1/2 cups whole milk

Mix at a high speed for 2 minutes, pour batter into a 12-cup muffin tin, and bake at 375F for 20 minutes, on the top rack. You might notice this recipe is egg-free; I sometimes prefer to avoid eggs when baking.

I also made a large batch of white rice, which will go with baked beans later.  You can use the open pot method, but if this is too tedious and time consuming, simply cook basmati rice at a ratio of 1:3 parts rice to water (this is more than the traditional ratio of 1:2).  Once the mixture is at a boil, lower the heat as low as it will go and simmer for 15 minutes with the lid tightly on.

basmati2

Once the dishwasher is done, I will make pizza dough.  Pizza is another mainstay in our household and at least one pie is cooked daily.  Let me say a few words in defense of pizza.  I truly don’t understand why pizza is considered junk food. It’s no different than a cheese sandwich, would we consider that junk food?  Homemade bread, tomatoes, mozzarella, olive oil. Please tell me where the “junk” is!

Anyway, here is my “master” (if I do say so myself) pizza dough recipe, and here are instructions on turning it into pizza. I have been baking pizza for 17 years and this recipe and technique represent a lot of trial and error.  I’ve had native new yorkers tell me my pizza is delicious, so if it’s good enough to satisfy them, it should make your family happy.

pizza

We have a number of leftovers that will be added to the newly cooked items, mainly, Portuguese sweet bread (this recipe was good but not great, I think my Amish Hearth Bread is better), roasted sweet potatoes, Sephardic huevos haminados (slow cooked eggs– they are amazing),

huevoshaminados

… and baked beans.  We also always have a large assortment of fruit and greens available for snacks and salads.  I always keep large amounts of frozen greens in the freezer to make into healthy dishes, like spinach with garlic (which I’ll make later today, along with sauteed broccoli), or frittatas.

amishbread2

amish hearth bread

frittata5

broccoli frittata

Regarding leftovers, I rarely keep leftovers more than 24 hours and typically discard them after this point.  But because of the level of efficiency we’ve reached, I rarely throw away food. One lesson I’ve learned, is that it’s economically risky to always be trying new dishes.  Of course you should try new recipes here and there, but if there are foods your family happily wolfs down, cook those dishes frequently and in large quantities.

For beverages, we have water, fruit juice, occasionally tea or homemade lemonade.  Our grocery bill is never more than $250 a week, and that includes non-food items, so our actual food costs are probably in the vicinity of $180 a week for 9 people, which is well below the USDA levels, and I believe it’s even below food stamp allotments.  So our family is a living testament that it’s possible to eat healthfully, cheaply.  And yes, all of us are a healthy weight.

Homemade Croissants

croissants

No longer do you need to be enslaved to the patisserie down the street.  With this inexpensive, simple (if somewhat tedious) recipe, you can create your own fluffy, flaky, delectable croissants.  Even better, you get to eat them warm.  My picky kids devour these croissants like locusts.

Just a note before you begin: you will need a dough scraper (only $1.95, buy a few!), a pastry brush, and a good quality yeast.  As  I mentioned in the pizza dough recipe, we only use SAF gold, available from King Arthur Flour.  Buying it by the pound is much cheaper than buying packets at the grocery store, not to mention those packets tend to be a poor quality yeast anyway.

2 tsp yeast
3 tbs warm water
1 tsp sugar

2/3 cup warm milk
2 tbs vegetable oil
2 tsp sugar

2 1/4 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened but NOT melted

for egg wash:
1 egg
2 tbs water

Before you begin, make sure that your butter is at the right consistency and temperature.  It should be softened but not melted.  If you warm up the butter in the microwave and it melts, don’t panic; just let it sit at room temperature for a while.  However, you don’t want it to be chilled.  It should look like the butter below:

butter

In a mixing bowl, whisk together the 2 tsp yeast, 3 tbs warm water, and 1 tsp sugar.  It should bubble and be frothy after a few minutes.

proof

Meanwhile, warm up your 2/3 cup milk (warm but not hot to the touch), and whisk in 2 tbs vegetable oil and 2 tsp sugar.

liquid

Add the milk mixture to the yeast mixture and whisk.

liquid 2

Add the 2 1/4 cups flour and 1/2 tsp salt; knead with the dough hook until it forms a cohesive mass.  The dough should not be too sticky.  If it is sticky (as pictured below) add one more tbs of flour.

too wet

As you can see, that 1 tbs of flour did the trick.

plus1tbsflour

On a lightly floured surface roll the dough out into a rectangle.

rectangle

It should be between 1/8 and 1/4 of an inch thick, as illustrated by comparison to my daughter’s fingertip.  The rectangle should be roughly 9 X 12 inches but it doesn’t have to be exact.

thickness

Now take your butter and smear it on the top two thirds of the dough.  I went a little overboard here, but just make sure you leave a section butter-free at the bottom, and leave a slight margin around the edges.

butter2

Fold up that third at the bottom over the middle third.

first fold

Fold the top third down.

second fold

Press the dough down slightly, but don’t roll it out.

flattened

Now, fold in thirds again, being careful to scrape any butter that oozed out back onto the dough  It doesn’t matter which third you fold first, just fold it into thirds and press it down slightly again.

flattened2

flattened3

Place in a plastic bag,

bag

and put it in the fridge for 2 hours.

After 2 hours, remove the dough from the fridge, and once again roll it out into a rectangle the same size as you did before.  Again, fold up the bottom third, and fold down the top third.

secondroll

secondroll2

Turn the dough 90 degrees, and roll it out slightly.  This second roll doesn’t have to be as thorough as the first, but you need to roll it out sufficiently such that it can be folded into thirds yet again.  Fold up the bottom third, fold down the top third,

secondroll3

… and put back in the plastic bag, and in the fridge for another 2 hours.

After the second 2 hours round in the fridge, the pressure rises a bit  You need to work fast because you want the dough to remain slightly chilled as it goes into the oven.  Of course, you could always shape the croissants, cover with dish towels, and but them back in the fridge, but you’ve already waited 4 hours for those warm croissants!

Preheat oven to 475F with the rack in the top slot.  Spray a large cookie sheet with cooking spray.  Remove the dough and once again roll out into a rectangle of roughly 1/8-1/4 thickness.  Slice this in half widthwise (assuming a short side of the rectangle is facing you) and put one half back in the fridge.  Roll out the remaining half as thin as you can, but keeping the shape of a rectangle.  Cut this rectangle into thirds (again, cutting the narrow length) and then cut each third diagonally into 2 triangles.  So you’ve just made 6 triangles.  It may sound complicated, but I promise it’s not.

croissant triangles

Now take each triangle and roll them up starting at the wide side down to the point.  Place them point side down on the cookie sheet; you can stretch a little as you roll and turn the crescents in slightly for a classically “croissant” shape (I don’t bother with this, too much hassle!).  Keep working quickly, and repeat the process with the other half of dough.

Now prepare the wash.  Whisk one egg together with 2 tbs water, and with a pastry brush, brush over each croissant.  Here’s on old trick from making challah: after you’ve “painted” each croissant, wait a minute or two, and brush the wash over again. This makes for a glossier finish.

croissant wash

By this point the oven should be hot, so pop them in on the top rack.

Cook at 475F for 6 minutes, then lower the temp to 375F and cook for 5-6 more minutes.  Let cool before eating!  My girls love to slather these with cream cheese.

plate

Turning Pizza Dough into Pizza

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I realized this morning that despite sharing my definitive guide to pizza dough, I never explained exactly how to make it into pizza.  I guess after making pizza for 16 years, I assumed it would be obvious, but this morning while making fluffy pancakes I remembered that the world only exists in one place at any given time.

If you followed the directions for pizza dough, you should have four slightly flattened, olive oil coated, ovals of pizza dough in individual plastic bags, sitting happily in your fridge.

Preheat your oven to 450F with your rack in the middle,  Take your circular pizza pan (we use this pan, but it doesn’t really matter, though don’t try this with a stone pan) and spray it lightly with cooking spray.  Cut open the bag and place the dough in the center of the pan.  Using the palms of your hands, press the dough out into a flat pizza crust.  The dough should not be sticky due to the olive oil; if it is sticky, put a small amount of olive oil on your hands and continue pressing out until you have reached the edges of the pan.  If the dough offers any resistance let it rest for 10 minutes and then proceed.  Sometimes it helps to have the dough at room temperature before starting this process, but it shouldn’t make much difference as long as you dutifully followed directions, and let the dough rest for at least 8 hours in the fridge.

Once your dough has been pressed out, put on the sauce.  For a basic Neapolitan pizza use tomato sauce.  We use undiluted condensed tomato soup for pizza sauce– it is convenient and the perfect consistency for pizza sauce.  I have not been impressed with jarred pizza sauces, and homemade sauces tend to be too watery.  Liquid is your enemy when making pizza.  Use the back of a spoon to spread it out, but don’t put too much pressure on the dough. Remember to leave an empty space around the circumference for the “crust.”

Use as little sauce as possible.  One third of a small (10.75 oz) tomato soup can is enough for one pizza. Remember, use the “sauce” undiluted!

Then top with cheese.  How much cheese you use depends on your personal taste, but it should be a thick enough layer that you cannot see the sauce or crust under it.  Do not heap cheese in the center of the pizza, as toppings tend to “pool” in the center of the pie.  The sauce and cheese layers should be level.  Ideally you should use whole milk, low moisture shredded mozzarella.  Don’t shred your own mozzarella from a block– it will contain too much moisture.  I have seen the “shred your own” advice in frugal tips and it’s terrible advice. Even pizzerias use pre-shredded mozzarella purchased in bulk.  We are lucky to have access to a restaurant wholesaler that is open to the public, and I buy a low moisture, whole milk shredded cheese from them in 5 lb bags.  You might have to experiment with different brands of shredded cheese.  Generic is usually higher quality than the name brand as far as shredded cheeses go (why I don’t know).  But generally speaking, the cheeses available in most grocery stores are poor quality.  Try to find a restaurant or pizzeria wholesaler, or italian market, in your area.  The cheese doesn’t have to be expensive, and in fact should be cheaper if you can buy wholesale bags.  I pay about $18 for 5 lbs.

Once the cheese is in place, slip the pizza into the oven and cook for about 15 minutes.  If you like your pizza a bit roasted, leave it in longer, but check frequently to make sure it’s not burning to a crisp.

When the pizza is cooked to your satisfaction, remove it from the oven, and using a metal spatula, slip it onto the counter.  Cut the pizza into eighths using a pizza cutter, and enjoy!

Note: using a lower rack will result in a more charred crust, using a higher rack will result in a less charred crust.

Obviously you can use different toppings on your pizza, but the general rule is that less is more as far as pizza is concerned.  A thin crust cannot withstand too many toppings, so keep your topping layers as thin as possible.  I often add cooked chopped spinach (pressed in a towel to get out moisture, remember, moisture is the enemy!) either on top of, or instead of, the sauce.

In closing, let me go on record saying that I don’t know why pizza is considered junk food. Other than a trace amount of sugar in the sauce, of which you are using very little anyway, what is “junk” about the unfairly maligned pizza? Fresh bread, tomatoes, cheese, olive oil. Sounds healthy to me!

Healthy Cookie Bars

healthycookiebars

Ok, they’re not healthy, but they’re slightly less unhealthy than your typical cookie fare!  These cookie bars are just as yummy as the richer vegan cookie bars that I blogged about prevously.  This variation has more oatmeal, less sugar, and fewer chocolate chips.

Preheat oven to 350F with rack in the middle position.

2 cups old fashioned oats (uncooked)
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/4 cups brown sugar, slightly packed
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 scant cup vegetable (canola) oil
1 tbs white vinegar
scant 1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Combine the dry ingredients, then add the oil and vinegar, and mix well.  Add the chocolate chips and combine.

After eating a little of the delicious raw dough, press it into a prepared 9X13 brownie pan.  You might have to get your hands a little dirty to do this; the dough will expand while cooking so don’t panic if it doesn’t exactly reach the edges of the pan.

Cook for about 13-15 minutes on the middle rack.  Because this is a vegan recipe, you don’t have to worry about undercooking it a tad (which will leave the bars slightly gooey).

The bars pictured above were cut after cooling for 20 minutes.  The longer they cool, the easier they will be to cut.  It’s best to cut any kind of dessert bar using a plastic dough scraper such as this one.  At $1.95 you can’t go wrong!

Spinach with Garlic

spinach

Whenever people complain that eating healthy, whole foods is too expensive, I always think of my $2.99, 3 lb blocks of of spinach from VMJ.  I defrost them in the slow cooker, wring out the water with a bath towel, then saute the spinach with copious amounts of garlic and olive oil.  Total cost is less than $3.50.  This produces about 3 huge spinach servings or 5 smaller servings.   Once you have the sauteed spinach you can put it on or in things like pizza, calzones, or stuffed bread.  Or just eat a big pile of it straight off your plate, because it’s delicious!

Obtain a 3 lb block of spinach or the equivalent.  Put it in the slow cooker, with half a cup of water, on HIGH for 4 hours.  If you are near the slow cooker, stir it a few times as it defrosts.

spinach1

(cover is just off for the picture– cook with the lid on)

Once it’s finished, place the spinach in a colander to drain and cool.

spinach3

Meanwhile, chop 5 cloves of garlic.

spinach5

Place the garlic in a large pan with a generous amount of olive oil.  I didn’t measure this, but it’s at least 1/3 of a cup.

spinach6

Take a clean bath towel (that you don’t mind getting stained) and fold it into fourths.  Place your spinach on it.

spinach7

Roll up the towel to squeeze out the water.

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Unroll it and it should look like this.

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Fluff the compressed spinach with a fork.

spinach10

Saute your garlic for a minute or two until fragrant.  Add the spinach, and add salt and pepper to taste.  Stir it well so that all of the spinach is coated with olive oil, for about five minutes on medium high heat.

And there you go!  You’ve transformed green glop into a delicious, healthy meal or side dish.

spinach