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Popeye had it wrong about spinach. Spinacea oleracea doesn’t make you stronger. Instead of adding nutritional iron, it blocks the absorption of iron with oxalic acid, making you weaker. In some people, oxalic acid also promotes painful kidney stones. So popping cans of spinach down the hatch is not all it’s cracked up to be in the comic strips. But what is?

In spinach’s favor it can be said that this annual herb is so full of water that it may help in weight reduction. If you doubt this, consider that spinach can be steamed all by itself over low-medium heat in a covered pot. The heat releases water, and by the time the leaves have wilted, but before they lose their emerald green, they are sitting in a bath of their own water.

Continue the experiment further. Dump the spinach into a colander. Let it drain. Then squeeze it. More water comes out. Then chop the spinach on a cutting board. More water comes out. In the recipe for the most famous of all spinach dishes below, the spinach is finally squeezed even drier by twisting it in a dishtowel.

Handled properly, in nonaluminum cookware, spinach retains its lovely green color. Its taste survives cooking. For a gratin with Mornay sauce, it is bulked up with cream and then covered with a white sauce (béchamel) enriched and thickened with grated cheese that melts under the broiler.

Philippe de Mornay (1549–1623) was brought up as a Protestant and became an adviser to Henri de Navarre, until Henri converted to Catholicism and became Henri IV. Philippe was influential in promulgating the Edict of Nantes, which gave important rights to Protestants (Huguenots). He survived the anti-Huguenot massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Night on August 24, 1572. Dubious authorities claim he invented several major sauces, * including the one that bears his name.

Even the name itself is a matter of historical dispute. After he inherited the seigneurie of a small hamlet from an aunt, he began calling himself Seigneur du Plessis-Marly. and some say he changed it to Seigneur du Plessis-Mornay. The village seems to have disappeared overtime. It does not figure in the roster of 200, 000 place names maintained by the Institut Géographique National. In chefspeak, Florentine refers to dishes in which eggs or fish lie on a bed of steamed spinach and are napped with sauce Mornay.

*Béchamel, chasseur

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