“Trust me, you have to order the spinach Maria as your side,” was the instruction given to me, in no uncertain terms, by at least six of my now-husband’s family members, who had gathered from every corner of the world for his mom’s 90th birthday celebration in Boca Raton, Fla. On our second or third day of this visit, which I should mention was my first introduction to Les’s family, about 16 of us were seated at a very long table at the Ke’e Grill, an upscale Boca restaurant that specializes in exquisite seafood dishes. I watched and listened as the server moved along the table, taking order after order for spinach Maria. It didn’t seem to matter whether the desired entrée was lobster tail, shrimp or salmon—even steaks, chops or chicken—literally everyone at our table ordered the spinach Maria, and it appeared true for the tables around us as well.
What was this mystical side dish, I wondered, that was so delectable that it united all the personalities present at this table and beyond? Creamy, crumb-topped heaven in a ramekin, that’s what.
This was no ordinary creamed spinach, and on subsequent visits to Boca, I requested return trips to Ke’e Grill so that I could experience the flavors enough to deconstruct it in my mind and then recreate it at home. I have made it three times in recent history, and after a few tweaks here and there, I’m finally confident to share my version of this memorable side dish. The base of the sauce is a bechamel, but only barely thickened because the cream and cheese are weighty themselves, and the spinach adds quite a bit of body. The buttered panko crumb topping is a delightful textural contrast to the richness that bubbles underneath.
It is relatively easy to make, but it takes a bit of time, and the Ke’e Grill menu even reminds guests to be patient for spinach Maria, as it is made to order and baked to bubbly, crispy perfection just before serving. If you wish to make it ahead, perhaps for an elegant New Year’s Eve dinner, prepare the filling and portion it into ramekins, then refrigerate up to 24 hours. Bring the ramekins to near-room temperature before topping and baking.
Ingredients (for 6 servings)
1 lb. frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed very dry
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter
3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour (a 1:1 gluten-free alternative would be fine)
2 medium shallots, finely minced
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
3/4 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup shredded fontina cheese
1/3 cup shredded gruyere cheese
1 whole bulb roasted garlic* (see notes)
Pinch of ground cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp. dry mustard
3 Tbsp. salted butter
1/2 cup unseasoned panko breadcrumbs (or substitute gluten-free crumbs, if necessary)
3 Tbsp. grated parm-romano blend*
It is important that you use roasted garlic, and not fresh, which would be much too sharp for spinach Maria. If you have never made your own roasted garlic, you can follow the recipe link for easy instructions, and you’ll want to make that ahead so it is ready for your spinach Maria.
We keep a large container of freshly grated parmesan and romano cheese blend on hand all the time, and you can follow that recipe link as well if you’d like to give it a try. Or simply use a good quality parmesan from the supermarket deli (please, for the love of good food, not the stuff in the shiny green can).
Prepare the spinach by thawing, rinsing and draining. It must be squeezed very dry for this recipe, and I recommend spreading it out onto a clean, unscented kitchen towel and rolling and twisting to extract all the excess moisture.
In a medium, heavy-bottomed sauce pot, melt the unsalted butter. Stir in the flour and minced shallots. Season with salt and pepper and cook over medium-low heat a few minutes, until the mixture is bubbly and has a slight nutty fragrance.
Add the milk all at once and whisk until smooth and thickened. Stir in the heavy cream until blended. Add the fontina and gruyere cheeses and stir until melted through. Stir in cayenne and dry mustard. Squeeze the roasted garlic directly into the sauce and whisk to break up the pieces.
Optional: At this point, the cream-cheese sauce will appear chunky, with visible bits of softened onion and roasted garlic. If you have an immersion blender, I highly recommend using it to cream up the sauce further; 60 seconds should do it. This step is optional, but it amplifies the creamy texture of any bechamel-based sauce, so I do it even for simple mac and cheese recipes.
Break up the packed dry spinach into the sauce and stir to blend it. It may seem that there is not enough spinach to match the sauce, but as you stir and blend, the bits will separate and disperse more evenly. Give the mixture a taste and adjust seasonings (salt, pepper, cayenne) to your liking.
Divide the spinach Maria mixture evenly into six 1/2-cup ramekins and place them on a small baking sheet. If you are preparing it ahead, cover them with plastic wrap and refrigerate up to one day. Bring them to near-room temperature before baking.
In a small saucepan or skillet, melt salted butter and toss the panko crumbs in it until moistened. Stir in parm-romano blend just until evenly mixed. Divide the topping among the ramekins. Bake on the cookie sheet at 350° F for about 25 minutes, until the crumb topping is crispy and golden, and the spinach Maria is bubbly at the edges. Serve immediately.