Sides Trio: Creamed Spinach, Sticky Carrots and Tater Tot Gratin

We have all most likely used a portion of this pandemic/work from home/isolation time to explore some new hobbies or interests. Maybe you have picked up cross stitch, put together a puzzle or know the entire Netflix library by heart? I’ll admit: my biggest new hobby has been birding, a somewhat common one to people spending more time in their backyards. We’ve also been working on our back porch, and that new outdoor ceiling fan makes bird watching in the backyard all the more enjoyable and relaxing. I mean, aren’t birds just the cutest?! (Aside from my loyal silver lab, Sadie, obviously)

By the same token, many people seem to have ignited or revived an interest in cooking. I love this! Will and I rarely go more than a couple days without working in the kitchen together and this extended time at home has given us opportunity to fine-tune some of our recipes. Lately, I have turned a good deal of my focus on to a subset that sometimes doesn’t get the attention it deserves: the side dish.

Sure, we can enjoy that can of green beans, a nice side salad, boiled or grilled corn on the cob, or make potatoes mashed, baked or french-fried. But every now and then you gotta add some variety to that plate. Today I want to share with you a few of my newfound favorites – a creamed spinach that will get everyone asking for more greens, sticky carrots that are so simple and flavorful (if you think you don’t like carrots please give this a try!), and a super fun tater tot gratin that is just as super easy to throw together.

What are your go-to sides and your favorite new all-stars?

Creamed Spinach

  • 1 pound fresh leaf spinach (or one pound frozen, defrosted)
  • 4 T unsalted butter
  • 1 medium onion, minced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • Red pepper flakes – to taste
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • ¼ cup flour
  • 3( ½ )cups half-and-half
  • 1 cup mozzarella cheese
  • 4 oz cream cheese
  • 4 oz crumbled blue cheese
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

If you are using fresh spinach, cut or tear the leaves into strips. Don’t be too technical here – sometimes I just leave the leaves whole. They are going to massively cook down as you.  If using frozen spinach, work in bunches to squeeze all the excess water out of the spinach using cheesecloth or a fine mesh strainer.  Set the spinach aside.

Pressing the liquid out of frozen spinach

In a large skillet melt the butter and saute the garlic and onions, cooking on medium high for 4-5 minutes or until onions begin to soften. Add the red pepper flakes and season with salt and black pepper. 

Add the prepared spinach to the skillet.  If you are using frozen spinach, separate any clumps of spinach as you add the whole pound in.  If you are using fresh spinach, add the leaves by handfuls, letting the spinach cook down a bit before you add more. 

Once the spinach is incorporated, add the nutmeg into the skillet and season again with salt and black pepper.

Add the flour and stir it into the spinach. Cook for 2-3 minutes until the aroma is a bit nutty – this helps ensure you won’t have any raw flour flavor.

Toss the flour around so it cooks just a bit

Add the half and half and cook until just below boiling, stirring often. Reduce the heat and stir in the mozzarella, cream cheese and blue cheese. Cook for 6-8 minutes or until mixture has thickened, stirring occasionally.

Stir in Parmesan cheese and stir to combine.

Grated or shaved parmesan works great!

For an added touch, broil 3-5 minutes in an oven-safe dish.

Sticky Carrots

  • 1 ½ – 2 pounds medium-sized carrots, peeled
  • 1-2 T butter, diced
  • a few bay leaves
  • sea salt
  • freshly ground pepper black pepper

Chop the carrots into about 2-inch lengths – this is where big, thick carrots work better than smaller ones – you can use the smaller, but you may have more difficulty getting them to “stand at attention” for the remainder of the recipe. Stand the carrots up in a medium saucepan so that they are standing snug next together. You can see I didn’t completely fill my saucepan here – just make sure all the carrots stand up and are fairly sturdy.

Once your carrots are packed in, tuck the bay leaves between them – just slide/wiggle them in between several different places. Place small pats of butter on top of the carrots and season the whole saucepan well with salt and pepper. If a couple pats of butter fall down into the pan, no worries! You’ll still get the benefits of the butter as the carrots cook.  Carefully add enough water to come halfway up the carrots and put them on the heat. 

Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to medium-low and cover with a lid. Simmer for about 20 minutes or until carrots are tender.

Take the lid off and let the liquid reduce until there isn’t any left, about 20-30 minutes. 

A couple of my little soldiers fell down – all good!

Let the carrots sizzle gently in the remaining butter for about 5 minutes until the bottom of the carrots are sticky-brown. 

The bottom is sizzling and getting brown & delicious!

Carefully turn them out onto a plate and serve.

Tater Tot Gratin

  • Half of a 28-ounce bag of frozen tater tots
  • 1 T butter
  • 1 T flour
  • 1 ¼ cups milk
  • 1 garlic clove
  • ½ tsp thyme, chopped
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • Pinch of cayenne
  • ½ cup parmesan, grated
  • Green onions or chives, chopped

Preheat oven to 425. Coat a 2-quart baking dish with nonstick spray. Pour the tater tots into the baking dish and bake for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour until combined. Whisk in the milk and grate the garlic into the saucepan. Not sure how to grate the garlic? A microplane is going to be your best friend here. Simply take a peeled garlic clove and rub it back and forth across the small grooves of the microplane. The garlic will be a little juicy and release a ton of flavor, really blending well into the cream sauce.

Add the thyme, salt and cayenne. Simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes.

Off the heat, stir in the parmesan.

Carefully pour over the tater tots.

Cooking the tater tots well before adding the cream sauce allows them to hold up a little better and provides a bit of texture

Broil the dish until browned, 3-4 minutes.

Topped with green onions or chives.

Just the recipes:

Creamed Spinach:

  • 1 pound fresh leaf spinach (or one pound frozen, defrosted)
  • 4 T unsalted butter
  • 1 medium onion, minced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • Red pepper flakes – to taste
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • ¼ cup flour
  • 3( ½ )cups half-and-half
  • 1 cup mozzarella cheese
  • 4 oz cream cheese
  • 4 oz crumbled blue cheese
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

If you are using fresh spinach, cut or tear the leaves into strips.  If using frozen spinach, work in bunches to squeeze all the excess water out of the spinach using cheesecloth or a fine mesh strainer.  Set the spinach aside.

In a large skillet melt the butter and saute the garlic and onions, cooking on medium high for 4-5 minutes or until onions begin to soften.

Add the red pepper flakes and season with salt and black pepper. 

Add the prepared spinach to the skillet.  If you are using frozen spinach, separate any clumps of spinach as you add the whole pound in.  If you are using fresh spinach, add the leaves by handfuls, letting the spinach cook down a bit before you add more. 

Once the spinach is incorporated, add the nutmeg into the skillet and season again with salt and black pepper.

Add the flour and stir it into the spinach. Cook for 2-3 minutes until the aroma is a bit nutty.

Add the half and half and cook until just below boiling, stirring often.

Reduce the heat and stir in the mozzarella, cream cheese and blue cheese. Cook for 6-8 minutes or until mixture has thickened, stirring occasionally. Stir in Parmesan cheese and stir to combine.

For an added touch, broil 3-5 minutes in an oven-safe dish.

Sticky Carrots:

  • 1 ½ – 2 pounds medium-sized carrots, peeled
  • 1-2 T butter, diced
  • a few bay leaves
  • sea salt
  • freshly ground pepper black pepper

Chop the carrots into about 2-inch lengths. Stand the carrots up in a medium saucepan so that they are standing snug next together.

Once your carrots are packed in, tuck the bay leaves between them. Place small pats of butter on top of the carrots and season well with salt and pepper.  Carefully add enough water to come halfway up the carrots and put them on the heat. 

Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to medium-low and cover with a lid. Simmer for about 20 minutes or until carrots are tender.

Take the lid off and let the liquid reduce until there isn’t any left, about 20-30 minutes. 

Let the carrots sizzle gently in the remaining butter for about 5 minutes until the bottom of the carrots are sticky-brown. 

Carefully turn them out onto a plate and serve.

Tater Tot Gratin:

  • Half of a 28-ounce bag of frozen tater tots
  • 1 T butter
  • 1 T flour
  • 1 ¼ cups milk
  • 1 garlic clove
  • ½ tsp thyme, chopped
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • Pinch of cayenne
  • ½ cup parmesan, grated
  • Green onions or chives, chopped

Preheat oven to 425. Coat a 2-quart baking dish with nonstick spray.

Pour the tater tots into the baking dish and bake for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat.

Whisk in the flour until combined. Whisk in the milk and grate the garlic into the saucepan. Add the thyme, salt and cayenne. Simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes.

Off the heat, stir in the parmesan.

Carefully pour over the tater tots.

Broil the dish until browned, 3-4 minutes.

Topped with green onions or chives.