Heating dressing mellows spinach's earthiness, retains its bulk

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Eyeing some freshly harvested spinach at the Sag Harbor Farmers Market, my first thought was that if I steamed or sautéed an entire bushel, maybe I'd wind up with enough to feed my immediate family. That's the problem with spinach: No matter how much you buy (and no matter how much you spend), you are left with almost nothing after cooking it.

Ten cups (about 1 pound) of fresh spinach will yield about 1 cup cooked. Skip the cooking, and this quantity will fill a large salad bowl.

Even better is to pour a warm dressing over the raw spinach just before serving. Warming the leaves will wilt them slightly and mellow their earthy flavor without causing them to shrivel into a watery little pile.

Both flat-leaf and savoyed varieties are now available at many farmers markets. Both are delicious, but the slightly crinkly savoyed leaves are especially good for salads, because they can catch and hold dressing in their folds.

Whatever you do, don't try to make a salad with a bag of spinach packed in a plastic bag and shipped to Long Island from an industrial farm in Canada or California. Instead, look for bunches of whole, crisp, unblemished leaves grown closer to home.

Dark green, tender leaves no longer than 6 inches are best. Larger leaves might be tough and difficult to eat neatly.

After removing the stems, wash the spinach thoroughly; unwashed, unbagged spinach can be sandy.

Spinach stands up well to rich, assertively flavored dressings and can support heavier salad ingredients such as hard-cooked eggs, cheese and bacon.

Making a warm dressing is as easy as heating some oil (or bacon drippings) in a skillet and adding vinegar and seasonings. Here are a few variations I enjoy this time of year:

Warm Bacon Dressing: The classic spinach salad dressing. Sauté six strips of bacon, remove the bacon and crumble; this becomes your garnish. Cook some minced garlic in the bacon grease, stir in 2 tablespoons cider vinegar, season with salt and pepper, and pour over spinach and some quartered, hard-cooked eggs.

Warm Dijon Vinaigrette: Sauté 2 sliced shallots in 1/4 cup olive oil, stir in vinegar and some Dijon mustard, season with salt and pepper, and pour over spinach. This dressing works well on plain spinach but also can be used on a spinach chef's salad with some sliced turkey, ham and Cheddar cheese.

Honey or Maple Dressing: In addition to the mustard, add a tablespoon of honey or maple syrup to the pan for a sweet-and-tangy salad. This dressing works well with the addition of some cubed, cooked chicken breast.

The Poached-Egg Approach: Toss spinach with a little oil and vinegar. Top each portion with a warm poached egg and let the warm yolk further dress the greens. If you'd like, add some seasoned croutons to the mix.

Spinach Salad With Warm Strawberry-Rhubarb Dressing

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Warm bacon dressing is the classic choice for spinach. Last week, I couldn't resist throwing a couple of other seasonal ingredients into the mix. Local strawberries and rhubarb are available now, but not for long, so pick them up when you buy spinach. Cook the chopped strawberries and rhubarb in bacon drippings to soften and add great flavor. Then purée the mixture and, while it's still warm, pour it over washed and dried leaves.

10 cups young, tender spinach leaves, washed and dried

6 strips bacon

1 shallot, finely chopped

1 cup strawberries, stemmed and chopped

1 cup chopped rhubarb

1/4 cup water

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

2 ounces crumbled feta or goat cheese (optional)

Place spinach in a large bowl. Heat bacon in a skillet over medium-high until crisp. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to cool before crumbling.

Add shallot to skillet with bacon fat and cook until softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Add strawberries, rhubarb, water and sugar, and bring to a boil. Stir in vinegar, lower heat and simmer until fruit is soft and falling apart, about five minutes. Purée in a blender or food processor and season with salt and pepper.

Toss about 1/2 cup of the warm dressing with spinach. Divide among serving plates and sprinkle with bacon and cheese, if desired. Serve immediately with extra dressing on the side.