A warm spinach salad, wearing pancetta and egg


When boxes of washed baby spinach first hit the stores so many years ago, my intake of the iron-rich vegetable soared.

No longer would a spinach salad or a skillet full of garlic-sautéed leaves require 20 minutes of gritty, stem-pulling, thrice-rinsing preparation. As much as I loved spinach, it had been a never-on-a-weeknight thing.

Now it’s my go-to green when I want to make a salad in under five minutes or when I need to add green matter to a soup or stew.

A downside, though, beyond the fact of the plastic clamshell packaging, is that since baby spinach has become so seductively available, I rarely take the time to seek out and then clean the regular kind.

That regular, more mature spinach is dark green, thick-leafed and often ruffle-edged, which gives sand and soil plenty of little crevices in which to settle. This is why it needs to be soaked in clean water a full three times to clean it, as opposed to the quick rinse I’d give to boxed greens.

The upside is that fully grown spinach has a more complex flavor than those immature shoots, one that’s earthier and more mineral. It also has a sturdier, crisp texture, meaning that it can hold its own next to pretty much whatever you want to toss it with in your salad bowl. Drizzle a warm bacon dressing onto baby spinach, and it will start to wilt on impact; you’ll get something closer to a sauté than to a pert salad.

The classic warm, bacon-dressed spinach salad was created with mature spinach in mind. This recipe is a takeoff of that basic concept, substituting cubes of pancetta for the bacon. Then, to make it hearty enough for a meal, I use the pancetta fat to fry scallions and eggs, which I slide on top of the greens. When the yolk gushes, it mingles with the tangy dressing as the fried scallions turn sweet and caramelized.

While you could make this salad with baby spinach, the texture won’t be as lively without the crunch of the fully grown leaves. Another possible substitute is kale, any kind.

This salad is excellent as a light dinner or substantial brunch. Or skip the scallions and eggs and serve it as a salad course. It will be a happy surprise for spinach lovers who may need to be reminded that maturity has its charms.

RECIPE:

Spinach Salad With Pancetta and Fried Eggs

Yield: 4 servings

Total time: 20 minutes

Ingredients:

1 small shallot, peeled and thinly sliced

1 to 2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely grated (or minced)

1 1/2 tablespoons cider vinegar

1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt, more as needed

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/3 cup plus 1/2 tablespoon olive oil, more as needed

3 ounces pancetta, diced

2 scallions, thinly sliced, white and light green parts only

4 eggs

12 cups spinach, preferably mature spinach rather than baby, or use kale

1/2 cup chopped fresh dill

Preparation:

1. In a large salad bowl, whisk together shallots, garlic, vinegar, salt and pepper. Whisk in 1/3 cup olive oil and set aside.

2. Heat a large skillet over medium heat, then add 1/2 tablespoon oil. Add pancetta and sauté until browned and crisp at the edges, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to the salad bowl with the dressing. Do not wipe out the skillet.

3. Add scallions and a pinch of salt to remaining fat in skillet. Sauté until tender and pale golden, 2 minutes. Crack in eggs. Fry eggs, spooning some of the olive oil over whites to crisp them at the edges, until just set, 1 to 2 minutes. Add more oil to the pan if needed to be able to spoon some over the eggs.

4. Toss spinach and herbs with the dressing and pancetta. Divide onto plates. Top each with a scallion-laced fried egg.


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