My all-time favorite meal in New York City’s Chinatown (in a restaurant now defunct) was a pan-fried flounder so crisp that the bones were edible, and this slippery dish of garlic-tinged spinach. If you got there on a Tuesday night at about nine, the cook on duty would always char the garlic. If the garlic wasn’t burnt, the dish had no panache.
Discard any limp spinach leaves and any woody or straggly stems. Wash the spinach under cold running water, using your fingers to rub the area around each pink root end to clean it thoroughly. Cut with scissors as directed above in TECHNIQUE NOTES. If there are still spots of grit or sand, wash again.
Plunge the spinach into a generous amount of boiling unsalted water for 1 minute, then drain immediately in a colander and flush with cold water until chilled. Press down lightly to extract excess water. The spinach may be left at room temperature in the colander for several hours before stir-frying or refrigerated overnight, sealed airtight.
Have the spinach and stir-frying ingredients within easy reach of your stovetop. Put a shallow serving bowl of contrasting color in a low oven to warm. If you are a garlic lover, give the garlic an additional spank with the broad side of a cleaver or heavy knife to expose more surface area to season the oil. Fluff the spinach with your fingers to loosen the mass.
Heat a wok or large, heavy skillet over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add the oil and swirl to glaze the pan. Wait for the oil to smoke, reduce the heat to medium-high, and add the garlic. Toss and press it against the bottom of the pan—briefly until fragrant if you do not want it charred, or longer to brown it if you desire the full effect. Add the spinach and toss and poke for about 30 seconds to separate the mass and glaze it with the seasoned oil, adjusting the heat so it sizzles without scorching. Sprinkle with salt, stir to mix, then sprinkle with sugar to taste. Stir briefly to combine, then scrape the mixture into the heated bowl. Do not cook the spinach too slowly or over too low a heat, lest it get watery. It should be in and out of the pan within 1 minute.
Serve the spinach hot, tepid, or at room temperature. Leave the garlic in the bowl if you enjoy its slightly barbecued taste.
Leftovers may be sealed and refrigerated 1–2 days and are good at room temperature.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.