Classic dish beautiful to serve, taste
What does one of the most popular spinach and chicken dishes have in common with an Italian noblewoman soon to become a French queen? Chicken Florentine of course!
The year of 1599 brought the marriage of Catherine di Medici of Italy and King Henry of France. The teenage bride brought a lot of new customs to the royal wedding like elaborate tablecloths, glassware, silver, sugar sculptures and flowers. This new queen and her small cadre of chefs would also introduce the French to a new way of cooking which some considered “Cucina povera,” or peasant cooking. The delicious simplicity and the wide use of raw vegetables, simple grilled meats and fish with no elaborate sauce reductions or complicated seasoning. Catherine was reportedly fixated on spinach. That is why hundreds of years later, the word “florentine” to describe a dish, pasta or soup that is prepared with spinach.
Chicken Florentine is a French term to describe chicken cooked in the style of Florence and after a quick review of my old cookbooks, was probably prepared in more French kitchens than Italian. The old school way of preparing this dish was to dredge the chicken in flour and sauté it in butter, then deglaze the pan with white wine. The spinach was then put in the pan with shallot and more butter and served with a mornay sauce.
Spinach and chicken are a beautiful combination, especially in the presence of cream and/or cheeses. When I opened the Oak Room steakhouse at Boston’s Copley Plaza hotel in 1998, one of our most popular side dishes was creamed spinach. This wonderful amalgamation cooked of spinach sautéed a la minute with shallot, spinach, béchamel cream and nutmeg was a hit even with the pre-heart-attack steak crowd.
Today’s restaurant customers have become increasingly sophisticated and concerned more about health, but still have that hankering for creamy lusciousness that chicken Florentine can provide. The many advantages to putting this on your menu is that it is a simple dish to prepare and it pairs well with all sorts of cheeses and combinations.
Now, my guess is that most of the pizzeria owners reading this have spinach in their pizza-topping repertoire. There are several types of spinach that you, as a restaurant owner can purchase.
- Spinach by the block, or chopped and frozen. This Grade A block-type spinach certainly is not the cheapest for you at nine cents an ounce, but its advantage is that it is already chopped and ready to mix into sauces, dips and soups. For use on the makeline, the magic occurs after thawing as almost a quarter of the weight turns to water. After paying someone to squeeze this messy endeavor out, I can guarantee it costs much more. If you don’t squeeze it out, it can become soupy on the make line and susceptible to cross contamination if someone’s hand goes from cheese or meats into this swamp.
- Whole spinach leaf by the block. This is also Grade A and frozen and runs at about eight cents an ounce. Like it’s chopped cousin, this needs thawing but doesn’t leach as much water. It’s good to remember that like the chopped block above, these 36-pound cases divide into 12 bricks –– if you have limited freezer space, this may pose a problem.
- Canned spinach, This rolls in at seven cents an ounce also, but its best advantage is that it doesn’t need to be frozen. This spinach is cooked and brined and can be salty. Each can yields ¾ of a liquid gallon. This product isn’t the best and mostly used for purées. (I’ll just leave it at that.)
- Frozen Grade A, IQF spinach: Meaning “individually quick frozen,” this arrives in bags of loose frozen flakes flash frozen and easily manipulated on a pizza (especially going directly on a pie from the freezer). The IQF runs at eight cents an ounce. Beware of thawing this product only in the bag as it tends to leak.
- Fresh baby spinach: This is usually named Savoy or curly leaf and is triple washed to go directly from the bag to a pizza or salad. If you are using a conveyor pizza oven, it is best to place this spinach under the cheese or toppings to prevent burning. This product comes in at a whopping 22 cents an ounce. I tend to use this to add some earthy texture to fatty pizzas or to “bulk up” a pie to guarantee a nice visual (which affects value perception and thus ensures a sale).
- Fresh flat-leaf spinach: This spinach is deep green and features slightly crinkled leaves up to four inches. Some have longer stems and leaves that hold up better to the high heat of a quick sauté than the baby spinach leaf that tend to melt very fast. This type of spinach is also half the price (11 cents an ounce) of baby spinach for some reason.
Chicken a la Fiorentina
This is the classic dish made ala minute on the line when I worked at Le Ciel Bleu in Chicago. It takes just one pan for everything and relies upon the flour, shallot and garlic as the heart of the sauce. A classic Mornay sauce would suffice but I think the Gruyère takes away the delicate nature of the spinach. I added crème fraiche and cream for a final boost of lusciousness which is cut by that final squirt of lemon.
John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio.