Sunday, July 10, 2011

Japanese Restaurant Spinach with Sweet and Salty Peanut Dressing

In order to make enough of this, I think I'd need some kind of a dump-truck delivery of spinach.

At our favorite Japanese restaurant, Osaka--the place where the kids and I always want to go for our birthdays (links to me writing about it before, only oddly unflatteringly. . .)--there's a crazy-addictive spinach dish that's listed on the menu as "Osmitashi." You might see it on your favorite Japanese restaurant's menu as "oshitashi," which seems to be the preferred English spelling, and if you order it, it will be delicious: chilled balls of steamed spinach in a light dressing of soy and sesame, or maybe ponzu, which is soy and citrus. It's always good. But at Osaka, it's different: the dressing is thick and creamy, rich and salty and a little bit sweet. It says "sesame dressing" on the menu, but, in the way of many "sesame dressings," such as the cold sesame noodles from Empire Szechuan on 100th and Broadway, your mouth says "peanut butter." It's topped with papery flakes of dried, smoked fish (bonito) and the four of us used to get one order, to share, and now we get two, to share, and it's not enough. "I'm getting my own," I say. "For just me. I want you guys to understand that and order accordingly." Only then Michael and the kids decide to share one, and what do you know, they need to get all involved with mine when they run out. I think "step off," but sigh, instead, in my maternal spinachless martyrdom.
 Thus we came (when? just now) to a recent evening of toying, unflushly, with the idea of going out to eat. It was really the osmitashi itself I was craving--not even the expensive rest of the meal--and so, thriftily, I bought a huge bag of spinach instead, and we set about to copycatting. And we got pretty close--close enough to make something addictive, and so we bought another huge back of spinach the very next day and nailed it. The first version had toasted sesame seeds and sesame oil in it, and it was a little wrong. Also miso, which was also wrong (maybe I was confusing it with our other addiction, the miso salad dressing at Fresh Side in Amherst, which CANNOT BE DUPLICATED no matter how hard we try). In fact, it turned out to be incredibly simple: peanut butter, rice vinegar, soy, and sweetener. And the bonito flakes, which I got at our local Asian market, but which you could get more expensively from Whole Foods. 

We've made it a half dozen times now, and it disappears in about a minute. It's crazy good. I want to say that it's irresistible, except that Ben and Birdy's friends Harry and Ava managed somehow to resist it. We were shocked, but it's true--they didn't like it. I mean, they didn't wipe their tongues off on a dish towel (*cough* Ben and hard-boiled egg *cough*), but they ate about 4 nanobites each. So if you really are not a fan of cooked spinach, this may or may not convert you. But the dressing is great for cold noodles too, so you might want to make it anyway.

Speaking of--what? Cold noodles? No. Nothing, I guess. But we're leaving today for our annual camping trip on the Cape! See you there? I'll be the one in line at Moby Dick's trying to decide between scallops and clams.


Osaka-style Osmitashi
Serves 4
Active time: 10 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes

1 pound clean spinach (in a pinch, a 10-ounce bag will be okay, but not enough)
2 tablespoons peanut butter (mine is not natural-style: it's the organic kind from Whole Foods that has sugar and salt and oil in it, like eco-Jif)
2 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar (or plain rice vinegar, with a little more soy and sweetener to compensate)
1 tablespoon soy sauce or tamari
2 teaspoons agave nectar (or, I'm assuming, honey or sugar)
2 tablespoons warm water
Bonito flakes (or toasted sesame seeds) for topping

Cram all the spinach into a large lidded pot with a steamer and a half an inch of water in the bottom of it, and bring it to a boil over high heat. Steam the spinach until it is thoroughly wilted and collapsed--a minute or two. Leave it to cool while you make the dressing.

Combine the peanut butter, rice vinegar, soy sauce, and sweetener in a food processor and whizz until it's blended and creamy, then drizzle in the water with the motor running. Now look at it and taste it: it should be thin enough to pour (add more water if it's not) and it should be a perfect balance of sweet and salty, with just enough vinegar to keep it from being cloying. Try it, ideally, on a piece of spinach so you'll see what it's going to taste like, and adjust the seasoning as needed. Scrape the dressing into a jar you can pour it from easily.

Ideally, with all your dithering, the spinach will be cool enough to handle now. Gather it up and wring it out over the sink. Really squeeze it--you're going to end up with something around the size of a baseball, which is kind of demoralizing but totally fine! Squeeze and squeeze it. Now grab the ball of spinach in one hand and a pair of clean scissors in the other, and cut the spinach ball over a bowl so that you are making smallish pieces of spinach. (Why couldn't you do this with a knife on a cutting board like a normal person? Good question! I'm sure you could!). You're not looking for it to be chopped fine--but you want to be able to grab at it with chopsticks and have some come away without a lot of trouble.

Now grab small handfuls of the spinach and squeeze them loosely into balls. You will get around 8 balls. Arrange the balls in a dish and then (ideally, if you can stand to) cover and refrigerate for a half an hour until they're nice and cold. Now drizzle the dressing around them, sprinkle the bonito flakes on top, and serve.
Oh, that's got to be much too much spinach!
I'm kidding, of course. It all but disappears.
When I'm wringing it out, I think about saving--and then drinking--the spinach juice, but then I think of the "Hard Core" song from School of Rock. I think that might be too hard core even for me.
Snip, snip, snip. A knife would just make it taste so. . . knifey.
This takes just a few seconds--in case this picture gives you that hours-and-hours feeling of making dumplings or ravioli or something. Nope. Easy peasy.
The dressing is quick and easy. And here's my weekly plug for the Agave Council! Kidding.
You could pour the dressing actually onto the spinach balls, given that you're not trying precisely to recreate the way Osaka does it.
Fish food! Bonito flakes. I know they don't seem promising, but they're so smoky and delicious.
Birdy is ready. . . set, go!
Funny that I mentioned "fish food," since the expression "feeding frenzy" comes to mind here--the way goldfish swarm at the top of the tank.
 I feel like the Star-Wars light-saber sound-effects should be playing. We eat this so quickly and thoroughly.


  1. Wow wow wow. This looks so good. Cooked spinach is one of those things (along with black beans and quinoa) that I can't believe I crave as an adult, because I never would have even looked at them as a kid. I hope that means some day my kids will eat this kind of thing with the gusto that Ben and Birdy do. Have a great vacation...We could use some more camp recipes, so maybe you'll share when you return?

  2. I made a favorite spinach and mushroom dish for dinner the other night and my boys were squabbling about who got more spinach. think I need to encourage it by making this dish! Thanks, get some gelato in Provincetown for me. We don't go to the Cape until next month.

  3. I think Maternal Spinachless Martyrdom would be a fabulous name for your blog. Or my imaginary garage band.

  4. Those look yummy. Have a wonderful time at the Cape. I am still thinking about the homemade ice cream at Cape Cod Creamery in South Yarmouth.

  5. So would it ruin everything about the dish to just steam spinach and put the sauce on it and sprinkle it with the fish sprinkles without making it into the balls? Seems so much easier.

    1. Hi Kathy! Itʻs the presentation of each piece that makes it more delectable to eat. If you donʻt have the time to make the balls out of the spinach, you can serve it flat on a plate. Make sure you squeeze as much liquid as you can out of the spinach first, then cut them into 1-inch lengths. Sprinkle toasted sesame seeds or bonito flakes over the cut spinach. Serve the sauce in individual dipping plates for each diner.

  6. I hate cooked spinach. :)
    The dressing sounds pretty great though!

  7. I am making this tonight, hopefully for my family but likely just for me--and I'm totally okay with that, since I expect to love it! Have a great vacation!

  8. and the legend of the spinach juice was Way Hard Core!!!!

  9. I made the sauce and used romaine lettuce to dip in it.

  10. looks delicious! Can't wait to try it! Have a great time camping...

  11. okay, super yum!!! I love this. Also, I absolutely loved your article about the charity jar in Family Fun.
    I want to tell you how much I appreciate that idea. We're constantly looking for fun ways of introducing these concepts to our daughter. She's only 4, so it's smaller scale still. But I like the idea of doing it now anyway. My husband and I will have fun with it too and she can learn that way.
    Actually, I'm dieting, so it's a great way to have fun choosing not to eat junk!
    I'm glad to have found your blog too.
    Yeah! Thanks

  12. Anonymous12:26 PM

    sounds fabulous. i had to laugh at your dump truck comment, I don't think it's possible to get enough spinach at a meal to satisfy the 4 of us. there is *never* enough. will try this one as soon as i get some bonito flakes, thanks!

  13. dale in denver9:32 PM

    This was SO good. And lasted seconds. I'm in shock. My youngest son (a spinach hater) was first to sample. He loved it. Squawked at me like a baby bird. Then my oldest son (a good spinach eater) tried it and proclaimed it "awesome." Finally I coaxed my middle son (an I'll bargain for dessert if you want me to eat my spinach type) into trying it, and he, too, is a lover of this. No Bonito flakes, so used sesame seeds. I'll keep my eyes open for the flakes.

    With the abundance of spinach from our CSA, we can add this to the Saag Paneer for a weekly appearance. Thank you, thank you.

    I had some extra sauce, so boiled some noodles - and decided to boil them in the spinach water. Gotta be better than just dumping it, right? But not quite as extreme as drinking it - maybe?

  14. AlixKen9:44 PM

    I just read all 250 comments on your last Disney blog, being about 5 months behind the times. So happy to see you here thriving. I am obsessed with Pinterest and just pinned these delicious looking spinach balls on my board (hm, hundreds of dirty jokes lurking within that sentence). Will visit you here often. XoAlix

  15. I love Osaka and I love Oshitashi, and for some reason it's never occurred to me to order it there. Now I have to try it! But I think I also have to try to make your version at home.

  16. I made this and my son was still unsure about it and only tried a little bit. So, 8 balls and hubby and I each got 4. They vanished really quickly! Yum! Recipe comments:
    1) Food processor to mix up the sauce? I just did it with a fork and it was fine.
    2) There was almost a quarter cup of the sauce left over and the next day I used it as a dip with steamed cauliflower -- excellent. (does this mean I didn't use enough sauce on the balls?)
    Thanks for the recipe!!

  17. Anonymous11:03 AM

    Gawd. I was innocently searching for a Bon Appetit magazine recipe that I used to make ages ago (Cold Sesame Noodles) when I stumbled on your blog and this recipe. I am embarrassed to tell you how many times I've made it. For me. I've eaten those suckers all by myself. They never make it into the lunch tote for the next day. I'd have to fight some serious traffic to get to a store that sells bonito flakes for less than the cost of a human kidney, so I go with the toasted sesame seed topping. I also put a few drops of toasted sesame oil in the dressing. My favorite twist is to make the dressing with half tahini and half spicy peanut butter. Seriously, I may need an intervention if I don't stop eating this.