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Spinach Gratin offers cheesy goodness

FARGO—At a recent Sarello's event, I was refilling the water glasses at a table where the guests were talking about cooking, and someone mentioned using a "package of this, or a can of that." Noticing me, another guest chuckled and said, "I don't think Sarello's is the place to talk about food in cans or packages."

I laughed, and said, "Why not? Lots of good things come in cans and packages."

At home, our pantry and freezer are full of cans and packages, and while there might be the occasional can of smoked salmon or country pate, we also have cans of Veg-All, chili and creamy soups to use in a pinch. Our freezer, while home to a great assortment of homemade pastries, is also full of frozen veggies, corn dogs, Dilly Bars and pizza.

Let's face it—Tony, Gio and I don't eat like gourmets every day, or even very often. In fact, you'd probably be surprised by our standard fare, which is a pretty basic routine of pasta and chicken, pasta and Italian sausage, baked pasta with either chicken or sausage, and roast beef with potatoes every now and then just to keep life interesting.

In other words, we're just like you—really. We love our food traditions just as much as you do, especially when it comes to Thanksgiving, and that includes food that might come from a can or package.

In my family, we've always had the classic green bean casserole made with canned green beans, Campbell's cream of mushroom soup and French fried onions. Over the years, we've added new specialties, but the green bean casserole has never left the menu. It just wouldn't feel like Thanksgiving without it.

One of the newer specialties we've brought to the table is a savory and delicious Spinach Gratin, which uses packages of frozen, not fresh, spinach. I love this dish because I love spinach, and this casserole is full of spinach mixed with creamy, cheesy goodness.

There is some technique and time involved because the sauce is made from scratch, not out of a can, but the skill level is easy and the result is worth it. The sauce is a simple mixture of flour, nutmeg, milk and cream, which are added in stages to onions that have been sautéed in butter. As long as you can read, measure and stir, you can make this spinach gratin.

We use 3 pounds of frozen spinach (five 10-ounce packages), which we thaw first and then use our hands to squeeze as much liquid as possible out of the leaves. Frozen spinach is wonderful for baked dishes, and much more affordable than fresh spinach.

Spend the money where it counts—on the cheese. For this recipe, we use freshly grated Parmesan cheese in both the spinach mixture and the topping, with grated white cheddar on top as well. You could substitute Jarlsberg or Gruyere for the cheddar if desired.

For the final topping, we use Japanese breadcrumbs mixed with pine nuts and grated Parmesan cheese, and regular plain breadcrumbs would also work.

Tony and I differ in opinion on how much breadcrumbs to use: he likes a full coating to completely cover the cheese, as seen in today's photo, while I prefer a lighter dusting of breadcrumbs over the top so that the cheese is also visible. But this is just a matter of style, as both versions are equally delicious. A sprinkling of whole pine nuts is added about five minutes before the casserole is fully baked, to give it a final Italian flourish.

Spinach Gratin

Serves 8

4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter

2 large yellow onions, diced

1/4 cup flour

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated (or ½ teaspoon if using dried, ground nutmeg)

1 cup heavy cream

2 cups milk

3 pounds frozen chopped spinach, defrosted (5 10-ounce packages)

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

½ cup grated white cheddar cheese

Breadcrumb topping

1 cup Japanese (Panko) breadcrumbs

1/2 cup dry grated Parmesan

1/4 cup pine nuts

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place all ingredients for the breadcrumb topping in a food processor and pulse just until coarsely ground; set aside.

In a large skillet or saute pan, cook the onions in the butter over medium heat until translucent, stirring often, about 15 minutes. Add the flour and nutmeg and cook for 2 more minutes, stirring constantly.

Add the cream and milk and cook until thickened, stirring occasionally, about 8 to 10 minutes. The sauce should be thick enough to heavily coat the back of a spoon.

Once thawed, chop the spinach and use your hands to squeeze as much liquid as possible from the spinach. Add spinach to the sauce with ½ cup of the Parmesan cheese and stir to mix well. Season with salt and pepper; taste and adjust as desired.

Transfer the spinach to a baking dish and cover the top with remaining ½ cup of Parmesan cheese and the cheddar cheese. Finish with breadcrumb coating as desired. If adding whole pine nuts on top, wait to add them until 5 minutes left in baking time, or they will burn as the casserole bakes.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until hot and bubbly. Serve immediately.

"Home With the Lost Italian" is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello's in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 11-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at dine//thelostitalian.areavoices.com.

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