This recipe is inspired by "Spinach Maria" - a version of creamed spinach from Calhoun's, an east Tennessee steakhouse. My recipe has a light spice kick from red peppers and is almost a spicy creamed spinach casserole - the perfect side to any meal!
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💭Why you'll love this recipe
Spinach Maria is traditional creamed spinach, with mustard and red pepper flakes. This recipe is adapted from that dish.
- Hints of spice to break up the richness. I use mustard and red pepper flakes along with yellow onions and garlic to add some nice aromatics and break richness.
- Use fresh cheese to keep things light. The traditional recipe uses cream cheese, which adds a sour note. I use mozzarella and cheddar jack in my recipe for extra cheesiness
- Large, make-ahead dish that is very freezer friendly. This dish can be made ahead of time (up to 3 days) and can also be easily frozen.
📋 Ingredients and Tips
Spinach Maria is basically a spicy creamed spinach casserole. This recipe needs spinach, butter, heavy cream, yellow onion, garlic powder, red pepper flakes, Dijon mustard, mozzarella, and cheddar jack cheese.
Ingredient notes and tips:
- Adjust creaminess: Use heavy cream, half and half or whole milk for the cream component (from more to less creamy). But don't go any less fatty than whole milk!
- Use fresh or frozen spinach. Frozen spinach makes it easy to throw this dish together, but fresh spinach typically has a more vibrant green color finish.
- Add other warm spices if you want to customize. I only use mustard and red pepper flakes but you can also use other spices to adapt it to your tastes!
👩🏽🍳 Make creamed spinach from scratch
I like to use a cast iron skillet for this recipe because it allows me to throw it straight into the oven for the last step. However, if you don't want to bake the top, you are welcome to use a regular pan and transfer to an oven-proof container for the last step.
Prepare the spinach.
You can either blanch the fresh spinach or you can thaw the frozen spinach. Make sure to pat the spinach dry and set it aside while you get started on the rest of the dish.
Melt butter and saute onion in a cast iron skillet.
I prefer using yellow onions and browning them. Then, reduce the heat and add the garlic. This prevents the garlic from burning.
Then add the cream, mustard and red pepper flakes.
Bring the mixture to a boil, and keep stirring. Once it starts to boil (i.e. bubbles appear on top), turn the heat to a simmer (low). This allows the cream sauce to thicken.
Once cream is incorporated, slowly add Mozzarella, and Cheddar Jack. Stir until it forms a cheesy sauce.
Pat spinach dry one more time and add slowly to skillet, along with salt and pepper, stirring as you go along.
If your creamed spinach is too watery, I suggest cooking it down a bit more or you can add a tablespoon of flour to help thicken the mixture. If it's too thick, add a splash of milk or cream to loosen it up a bit.
Finally, top with Cheddar Jack cheese and Parmesan and pop into the oven at 350F for about 5 minutes.
This last step also allows the cheesy flavors to come out more, but if you prefer to have a more spinach-forward dish, skip that step!
👩🏽🍳 FAQs and Tips
Absolutely. I use 24 oz of fresh spinach in this recipe, but you can just cut that in half if using frozen spinach - so, about 1 lb of frozen spinach will work just fine. Fresh spinach tends to retain the structure of the spinach leaves a bit better. To use frozen spinach, you have to thaw it first. To use fresh spinach, blanch it first. See below!
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil (cover the pot for the first few minutes!) Then, once it's at a rolling boil, drop the spinach in for about 1 minute. Drain the spinach using a colander and wash with cold water. Finally, squeeze any excess water and pat dry using a kitchen towel. I prefer doing this instead of adding fresh spinach straight to the skillet so I can reduce the volume (blanching helps keep vibrant green color of fresh spinach!)
If you're using frozen spinach, you'll need to thaw it first before using it in this recipe. Throw the spinach into a colander and wash it under lukewarm water. One other trick you can also use if you want to do this quicker is to use your microwave for about 30 seconds to a minute. You'll just have to keep an eye out - you don't want to overcook it! If you microwaved your spinach, first run it under cold water. Once it feels thawed (typically a couple of minutes), squeeze out any excess water from the spinach. I first use my hands to get the bulk of the water out and then pat it dry with a kitchen towel.
I suggest using heavy cream (because, well, it's creamed spinach). However, you can also use half and half or whole milk if you want to lighten the recipe a bit. I don't recommend using 2% milk since the resulting creaminess is not ideal for this recipe.
🍴 Serving and storage suggestions
Spinach Maria is served as a side all year long, though it's also a fantastic side for any Thanksgiving or Christmas holiday meal. After all, who doesn't love creamy goodness? And hey, it's also a great way to get your kids to eat spinach if they don't love it normally.
This creamed spinach casserole is also a great make ahead side dish. You can make it 3 days before you need it and just store it in the fridge in an airtight container. Skip the last step when you make it ahead (i.e. Parmesan). Then, when you're ready to eat, reheat the spinach on the stove top, add the topping and bake for 10 minutes.
This recipe is also freezer friendly. Again, skip the last step. Then store the spinach in an airtight container in the freezer - it can last as long as three months! I love making a big batch of this spinach casserole (as large as my skillet will accommodate usually) and then freezing leftovers in individual portions for dinners.
To thaw frozen creamed spinach, throw in a microwave safe container, add a spoonful of water, and then heat in a microwave for around 2 minutes. I typically increase in 30 second intervals and watch the spinach as it thaws. Alternatively, if you remember, move it from the freezer to the fridge the night before.
I love serving this creamed spinach casserole with these other mains:
Creamed Spinach (Spinach Maria)
- 24 oz fresh spinach, Substitute with 12 oz frozen spinach
- ⅓ cup butter, unsalted
- ½ yellow onion, diced
- 2 cups heavy cream, can substitute with half and half or whole milk
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1.5 teaspoon red pepper flakes, divided, ½ teaspoon for garnish
- 4 oz shredded Mozzarella cheese
- 6 oz shredded Cheddar Jack cheese , divided; use half Monterrey Jack and half Sharp Cheddar if buying separate
- 1 teaspoon black pepper, for garnish
- If using fresh spinach, blanch in a pot of hot water, drain the water and set aside - you can use an ice bath to preserve the color as desired. You can also chop up the blanched spinach if you want smaller bites (but I prefer not to do this!)
- If you do the optional baking step at the end, preheat oven to 350F
- In a cast iron skillet (or oven safe skillet) melt butter on medium heat and then sauté the onions until they are fully sweated (about 3 to 4 minutes)
- Add heavy cream and stir to combine until bubbles start to appear. Reduce the heat to low and then add Dijon mustard, garlic powder and red pepper flakes. Bring to a simmer.
- Next, add the Mozzarella and 4 oz of the Cheddar Jack cheese and whisk to create a thick gooey cheese sauce. If you're not planning to bake in the last step, add all the cheese at this step!
- Squeeze all possible excess water out of the spinach and then add to the cheese sauce. Give everything a good mix until combined.
- Add the 2 oz of Cheddar jack on top and bake in the oven for about 3-4 minutes until the top layer melts really well. Top with a bit more red pepper flakes and black pepper and serve hot!
- If you use frozen spinach, you don't need to blanch it. Just make sure to thaw it before you start this recipe and drain excess water before adding in.
- You can also just use Cheddar instead of Cheddar Jack or vary the proportions of the cheese to your liking!
- I find that additional salt is not necessary for this recipe, but if you prefer, you can add a teaspoon to the cream mixture.