Spinach Rice Casserole is a cheesy, comforting hug that is much more than the sum of its parts. This simple heritage recipe finds new fans today. Serve with a salad, for lunch or dinner.
I often marvel at the culinary experiences my children take for granted — sushi, capers and smoked salmon on their bagels, Hatch chiles in their tamales, pad Thai when we go out to the neighborhood Thai restaurant. It’s all a wonderful global cornucopia, and these incredible delicacies are part of their everyday lives.
Lattes with vanilla syrup? Dinner at an authentic Basque restaurant with pickled tongue? Ho hum.
I grew up in far, far simpler food times. I can tell you when the first fast-food restaurant came to our town — 1973ish, those golden arches, a new idea to us — and it was a fact of life in a family of 6 that eating out was a very rare event. Four rambunctious children were no treat in a restaurant, not to mention the cost of the meal.
So we relished being invited to dinner to my great aunt’s house in a nearby city. She and my great uncle had no children of their own and were a bit proper by our thinking, so I imagine we were a great big noisy bunch to them, running in and out of the back door, nosing around to see what was in the candy bowl (we fought to be the first in the house to get there), getting in spats with each other (some resolved with fists, back in the day).
My mother tells a great story about my brothers and I at their house one day when I was playing with paper dolls, coloring their dresses or something, and one of my brothers sidled over to give me grief and tease me. I dispatched him quickly with a swift punch, leaving my great aunt agape at the entire exchange. Apparently I had (1.) experienced, and (2.) solved the problem, in under 15 seconds, before she even could form her thoughts. The merits of being a middle child.
And when we finally sat down to dinner at her table, with the good china and the nice silverware, what exotic things confronted us! These were recipes my mother didn’t cook, so by dint of that alone we thought they were quite unusual. My mother was a gifted home cook, so we never lacked for a great meal at my house, but oh, how interesting to taste someone else’s food!
Four dishes remain lodged in my memory from my Aunt Rosita’s kitchen.
First, her Christmas coconut candies dipped in chocolate. When we learned they had paraffin to help the chocolate set up, we dubbed them “wax balls.” Weren’t we delightful?
Second, her pink divinity. It was so sweet, so airy, so otherworldly…how did she make it? It was nothing like the sweets my mother made. We made fun of it (of course!) and then fought over the last piece.
Third, a divine lemon pudding dessert with sponge ladyfinger cookies and coconut. We called it Lemon Ladyfingers, and I really should attempt to recreate it. And fourth, her Spinach Rice Casserole. There is nothing unique about it, other than the fact we all loved it so much my mother asked for the recipe and made it many more times for us. Cooked rice, a block of frozen spinach, some shredded cheese and eggs — this was easy, everyday stuff that emerged as much more than the simple sum of its parts.
By today’s standards, it is a quiet dish. Perhaps we need a bit more quiet in our lives these days?
Today I bring you that Spinach Rice Casserole. Thank you, Aunt Rosita, for your hospitality, the memories, and the recipe.
Priceless, all of them.
Tips to make Spinach Rice Casserole
It is so easy, you barely need a recipe. Here are a few tips:
- Cook some rice, or better yet, use leftover cooked rice. My aunt used white rice, but these days I often use brown rice or even a rice-grain blend, for additional interest.
- Thaw a block of frozen chopped spinach and drain. There is no need to squeeze it totally dry, just drain it.
- What if you want to use fresh spinach instead of frozen? You can absolutely use fresh! Frozen spinach comes in a 10-ounce block, generally. So you’ll want *about* 10 ounces of fresh spinach. I have seen spinach in 5-ounce, 8-ounce, 9-ounce and 16-ounce bags and containers. Sheesh! So just get as close as possible to 10 ounces of fresh spinach, and don’t overthink it. Then throw it in a hot skillet (no need for any fat in the skillet), and wilt it quickly for a minute or two, until it is wilted down. Turn it frequently with a tongs so it wilts efficiently. Remove from the skillet to a cutting board, and when it is cool enough to handle, mass it on the cutting board and chop through it a few times. Voila….chopped spinach! For this recipe, you want chopped instead of whole leaves. It just works better.
- Grate a good quality cheese. I find that if I use a very sharp cheddar (my favorites are made by Cabot and Kerrygold), I can use 8-10 ounces instead of the 12 ounces the recipe calls for. That’s a good trick for cheese in general. If you have a super high quality flavor-packed cheese, you probably need less of it.
- Mix it all together in a mixing bowl, along with a few aromatics like chopped shallots, garlic (if you like), some melted butter and some eggs and milk.
- Bake, and what emerges will be irresistible! My husband kept picking at the leftovers one night after dinner, and finally said, “I can’t stay away from this stuff!”
Here’s a quick snapshot of my lunch, with a piece of this casserole topped with chopped ripe avocado. I have a few tortilla chips alongside for crunch, and a fresh apricot to round things out. I wouldn’t be shy about even eating this for breakfast…that’s how good it is.
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This post was originally published March 14, 2015 and has been updated and republished today.
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