Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Three Colors

Sometime when I was in middle school, my mother grew tried of cooking for the family every day of the week. I can imagine that it would get boring after awhile, cooking the same meals over and over, catering to our still undeveloped picky tastes. On top of this, she had decided to go back to work, and it seemed only fair to share the kitchen burden. So one night after dinner, she pulled out the calendar and had each of us (my father, brother, sister, and me) pick one day a week in which we would each cook dinner. Five of us meant that all of the school nights would be covered, and with teenagers in the house, these would be the only realistic nights for a family meal anyway. I can’t remember what my original day was; I’m pretty sure it changed every once in awhile, after quitting gymnastics, beginning dance class, or joining the cross-country team. In any case, I think we were all pretty nervous about the change in meal quality in the beginning. My sister, Sally, was something like eight years old at the time – frozen chicken nuggets and Kraft were her favorite foods. I’m not sure if my brother, Sam, hadn’t cooked much more than nachos. I was enamored of baking and not much else. Not exactly nutritious.

Instead of starving, we started to read cookbooks. My sister learned properly cook pasta. My brother learned to grill. I learned how to chop an onion. In a matter of months, we all had a few recipes under our belt – Sally had taco night, Sam had his own version of gyros, and I had roasted chicken and black beans and rice. As it turns out, we were all naturals in the kitchen, and while not every night was an exciting culinary adventure, we were eating well and getting excited about food.

From the beginning my mother had set some ground rules.

Well, actually, it was one rule: every meal must have three colors. Shades of brown did not count, and neither did artificial colors, like Skittles or M&Ms. For the longest time, I could not understand why she didn’t specify three food groups – I always made my colors match up this way, because the food pyramid seemed to be the epitome of healthy, balanced eating. And I still generally eat at least three food groups at every meal, but not always. The colors are what have really stuck with me.

When I left for college and was forced to eat cafeteria food I learned that there is something about a multicolored meal that is always fulfilling. I believe that our eyes sense a balance in the composition of our meals when they are varied in this way. Multiple food groups are not always so visually stimulating. If you eat a plate of brown vegetable, chicken, and rice mush, you might get your protein, veggie, and starch, but you’re not getting any pleasure out of your food. It’s all the same texture, it’s all the same consistency, it’s all the same color. It’s gross, and it’s boring.

As soon as I moved off-campus and off-board, I started eating three colors again, and was happier and healthier for it. Thanks to my mother’s rules growing up, I knew how to cook, and I knew how to cook well.

In celebration of colorful food, here’s my rendition of David Tanis’s spinach cake, which is actually more like a mousse or a quiche without the crust. It’s a bright green, fluffy, surprise of a dish, filling enough for a light lunch or as an assistant to roasted chicken and strawberries for dinner. The mousse is also the best at room temperature, so make it early in the day and let it sit out until you’re ready to eat.

Spinach Mousse
(adapted from A Platter of Figs)

2 medium leeks, cleaned, and chopped into a small dice
2 tablespoons, or a little less, unsalted butter
salt and pepper
about ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
2 pounds spinach, cleaned and chopped into 1-inch (or so, it’ll be processed) pieces (if you’re using pre-washed spinach, drizzle a little bit of water over it once it’s been cut to help the steaming process)
2 cups milk (the recipe calls for whole, but I used 2% lactose free, and it was great)
6 eggs
about ¼ teaspoon cayenne
Parmigiano (I forgot this, so I ended up eating it cold on the side, and that works too)

Melt the butter in a large pot (use the biggest stock pot you can find, 2 pounds of spinach is a lot!) over medium heat. Add the leeks and season with salt and pepper. Sauté until soft but still green, and definitely not crispy. Turn up the heat, add the nutmeg. Layer the spinach in the pot, alternating with a bit of salt. Push it down and cram it all in there (trust me here; the spinach cooks down fast). Cover tightly and let steam for a minute. Stir the spinach around so the raw pieces on top can get closer to the bottom. Cover again and let steam for about another minute. You don’t want to cook the spinach completely; instead it needs to be just wilted, and still very very green. Turn the entire contents of the pot, including the juices, onto a shallow platter to let cool.

Heat the oven to 400°. Once the spinach is cool, taste and adjust seasonings (this is your last chance to do so, unless you like to eat raw eggs). Mix the eggs and milk together. In a blender or food processor, puree the milk mixture with the spinach mixture in batches. (If you use a food processor, be careful to not overfill. You’ll make a huge mess. Trust me.) Include some of the juices from the pot as well. Add the cayenne.

Pour into a buttered baking dish or a well-seasoned cast iron pan. Grate a bit of cheese on top if you’re using it, and bake for about 45 minutes, uncovered, until a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool completely and serve with at least two other colors.


  1. Gosh. What a wonderful tribute to your mother. I hope my kid is that appreciative of me so early in his 20's.

  2. PS - what is it with leeks? I've never used them because I heard they were impossible to clean. Are they worth it?

  3. They're not impossible - I usually cut them up, put them in a colander, and rinse thoroughly. You can also cut off the ends and wash them like spinach. They have a similar taste to onions, yet more subtle (kind of like a hearty scallion).

  4. My love for cooking started the exact same way! My mom worked nights, so it was up to me to come up with some creative dinners in lieu of my father's chipped beef gravy on toast (gag!)
    Your blog is great!

  5. Mmmm this mousse looks delicious! Would it be good spread on crackers or do you just eat it by its lonesome?

  6. I hadn't thought of spreading it on crackers. I ate it with a fork and a little bit of lemon vinaigrette. Crackers would probably be good too!