Friday, October 5, 2012

Magic Pan Spinach Salad The 1980's Superstar Salad Revisited

Spinach Salad is one of those dishes that has had an interesting history is the American culinary landscape. There are many manifestations and versions of this salad some with warm bacon dressings and some with cold tart or sweet dressings all designed to compliment the flavor of the base of the salad which is the spinach leaves themselves.

Spinach salad as we know it has it's roots in the Pennsylvania Dutch country of western Pennsylvania's rolling farm country in Lancaster. The "Dutch" as we call them really came from the word "Deutsch" or German so we really are talking German food roots here when we look at their cuisine. And what a building block of American Midwestern cuisine it is. Pot roasts, noodles, potatoes , layer cakes, strudels, and even cabbages and casseroles are all part of the rich culinary heritage left us by the German settlers of this country.

The Pennsylvania Dutch in particular had the emergence of the mushroom growing farming industry in their backyard which grew up and prospered in that area until today. Alton Brown speaks about the likely hood that spinach and mushrooms found themselves together in this part of the country easily and that the salad that grew out of it based was on a hot bacony vinegar dressing that was prevalent in German cooking. That this occurred is really no accident given that German cooks used this kind of dressing for a variety of dishes, and the flavors really help to make ordinary vegetables sing!

Now I am familiar with this kind of dressing and this kind of spinach salad given that my Grandmother and Mom came from Chicago, another very heavily German influenced food town. But my real introduction and love of spinach salad came from my time spent working at the Magic Pan Restaurant in Tyson's Corner, Virginia back in the 80's as a student.

Now if you have been reading my blog you will know that I have referenced the Magic Pan Restaurant before. But for those of you who have not been a brief story.

The Magic Pan was a restaurant chain started by a Hungarian Couple , the Fono's in San Francisco in the 1970's. The original concept had been an Austrian style crepe restaurant mostly with recipes from Mrs Fono's family background. There were Ham crepes and Spinach crepes and chocolate and Strawberry crepes for dessert.

The business expanded and was purchased by Quaker Oats in the 1980's. They took the concept expanded it to a french country kitchen concept and rolled it out across the nation. The center piece of each Magic Pan was the giant tile enclosed Crepe Wheel which spun around and cooked the crepes and other dishes while the customers looked on. I remember as a 12 year old being taken to the Pan and being just mesmorized by the giant cooking wheel of crepe goodness! It was one of the first "chain" restaurants in the country in a time when the US was just beginning to discover different foods. The Pan delivered that and at a decent price point. It was also a perfect time for a crepe restaurant as like fondue, crepes were all the rage in the 1970's. The thing that was interesting about the Pan looking back was that all of the food was cooked on site with real recipes. This required a staff of cooks to be behind the scenes at all the locations and was not a cheap way to do business. Amongst the many reasons for the demise of the chain was the rise of sit down restaurants like TGI Friday's and Applebee's that offered a full service bar and menu with a central commissary supplying the chain. This meant cost savings on site and guaranteed that that food was the same everywhere. Interestingly enough this concept was pioneered by Howard Johnson's, who with Jacque Pepin at the helm produced frozen entrees which could be uniformly served all over the US.

Eventually through falling revenues and customer base the Pan collapsed. Interestingly enough the last Pan to close was the Mclean Store where I worked. A testament to Sue the manager and eventual owner I understand, who ran a tight ship and kept it afloat!

Even as people turned away from the Magic Pan because of trends so today people are looking back and recognizing the value that the concept had  not only as a novelty but as a place and a culinary experience. Whether the scene of many a boozy lunch by the ladies of Mclean or candle lit dinners for couples in love in the evenings, the quiet elegance and french country charm enveloped the diner in a world beyond the Mall and beyond their own. Upon entering the Tyson's Pan one was struck by the charm and sophistication of the surroundings. The excellent service and of course the tasty and interesting food. Food which for the time was new, foreign, and different. Before food TV, Media, food blogs and the internet., Americans were new to many of the foods the Magic Pan was serving.
And many look back with fondness to the time and place they discovered those foods for the first time. The Magic Pan.

Among of the super star dishes of all those boozy lunches by the "Ladies who Lunch" of Mclean Virginia was an assortment of salads. Two of the most popular where the "Orange Almond Salad" ( very Californian) and the Pan's version of this classic spinach salad. As with most of their dishes the Pan put their own twist on this dish. The Pan's take on this salad grew out of two factors I would guess. One was that the chain was a California based company. So the idea of salads as a meal was something very Californian. This also influenced the type of ingredients the salad had. I mean it's not complicated. Spinach, Mushrooms, Bacon, Eggs. But instead of doing a warm bacon and egg dressing like it's German forbearers the Pan took a more refined French/Californian approach to the salad dressing it with a really nice mustardy vinaigrette.

Regardless the result was something easy to prepare in the kitchen at the Pan and easy to prepare in your kitchen now. So take a look at this version of an old American standby and give it a whirl, it's an oldie but goodie revisited but with an emphasis on a goodie! Enjoy Ya'll!  

SPINACH SALAD (Based on my recollection of the Magic Pan's recipe)

 1 cup vegetable oil
 1⁄2 cup tarragon wine vinegar
 1 tsp dry tarragon leaves
 3⁄4 tsp salt 1⁄8 tsp pepper
 1 tsp sugar 
 1⁄2 tsp Dijon mustard

 Combine all ingredients except oil. Slowly whisk in oil.

 Fresh spinach
 Fresh mushrooms, sliced
 Chopped bacon 
 Chopped hard-boiled egg

Wash and dry spinach leaves. Sprinkle mushrooms, chopped cooked bacon and chopped hard boiled eggs over spinach. Toss with dressing.


  1. Basic and beautiful recipe. thx.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.