Deborah Yu Cooney of Waikiki has warm memories of attending high school in Baton Rouge, La., where her father was a Louisiana State University professor. At the home of her best friend, Laura Rowley, she would often enjoy a delicious creamed spinach casserole that was done in the Cajun-Creole style.
Since then, Cooney has made the popular side dish for the holidays wherever she has lived around the world. Her husband, Tom, was part of the Foreign Service for 25 years, so the spinach casserole was served to guests in Taipei; Hong Kong; Beijing; Shanghai; Washington, D.C.; Chile; Honolulu; and Buenos Aires in Argentina, where Tom served as U.S. ambassador.
This college counselor and her family have now settled in Hawaii.
Her recipe is one you’ll want to save. It is rich with butter, cheese and evaporated milk. The creamy spinach reflects Louisiana’s love of spice — garlic salt, celery salt, Worcestershire and a kick from pepper cheese.
“It’s rich, so you wouldn’t make this every day, but for the holidays, it is perfect,” Cooney said.
The hot dish is just like the expensive creamed spinach dishes served at the fanciest steak restaurants, but “taken up a notch,” as Louisiana chef Emeril Lagasse says, with the spicy heat.
The dish is a classic Baton Rouge recipe from the 1960s, said to have been invented when a woman named Madeleine mistakenly added jalapeno cheese to an old recipe. It proved popular and is now served in many Baton Rouge homes.
“It can be served as a dip with slices of bread, or as a side dish for ham or turkey,” said Cooney.
Since jalapeno cheese is difficult to find here, she substitutes the hot pepper cheese. If you like more spice, add cayenne pepper, red chili flakes or Creole seasoning (Cooney prefers the Tony Chachere’s brand).
Whenever she makes the recipe, she always bakes two casseroles: one to serve hot immediately, the other to be frozen.
“It freezes well, and then you have it ready to serve at the family Christmas party or at New Year’s,” she said.
Her Hawaii friends are surprised by her Louisiana cooking, but Cooney said they shouldn’t be.
“In Baton Rouge, I was called the Asian Cajun!”
Adapted from “River Road Recipes” by the Junior League of Baton Rouge, La.
40 ounces frozen chopped spinach
6 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
4 tablespoons chopped onion
1 cup evaporated milk
1 teaspoon garlic salt
1 teaspoon celery salt (or 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder)
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
2/3 pound hot Monterey jack pepper cheese, cut into 1-inch chunks
Creole seasoning powder, cayenne or red pepper flakes, as needed (optional)
Panko breadcrumbs for topping (optional)
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Cook spinach as directed on package. Drain; reserve 1 cup cooking liquid. Set aside.
In saucepan over low, melt butter. Whisk in flour until smooth. Add onions and cook on low until soft, but not brown, about 10 minutes. Slowly add milk and reserved spinach liquid, stirring constantly, until smooth and thickened.
Stir in garlic salt, celery salt, pepper, Worcestershire and cheese. Stir constantly until smooth.
Press out or squeeze excess water from cooled spinach. Add spinach to saucepan and combine. Taste and add Creole seasoning, cayenne or red pepper flakes, if desired.
Pour into two 9-by-9-inch heat-resistant baking casseroles. Top with breadcrumbs, if using. Bake until heated through and bubbly, about 15 to 20 minutes. Serve immediately as an appetizer with bread slices or crackers, or as a side dish. Serves 6 as a side dish, more as a dip.
Approximate nutritional information, per serving (not including panko for topping): 430 calories, 32 g total fat, 20 g saturated fat, 80 mg cholesterol, 1,200 mg sodium, 17 g carbohydrate, 6 g fiber, 6 g sugar, 23 g protein
To freeze: After baking, cool pan, then wrap in plastic wrap and foil. Keeps in freezer for up to 1 month. Warm before serving.
Lynette Lo Tom, author of “Back in the Day,” is fascinated by old-fashioned foods. Contact her at 275-3004 or via instagram at brightlightcookery. Nutritional analysis by Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S.