Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Spinach

I can still hear my mother shouting at my kid brothers and me to “eat your spinach!” I’d push a mound of creamed grey- greens (boiled from a frozen Green Giant box) with my fork, hoping with all my heart that this motion would somehow obliterate the dreaded vegetables into outer space so we could move on to much more pleasant matters, namely a few Oreos dunked in milk.

My mother, like so many other American women raising children in the 1970s, believed in the gospel that spinach was a cure-all, no matter how punitive it felt going down the hatch. It would be decades before I muster up the courage to eat a raw spinach salad (with bacon, of course) or try a spinach omelet at the diner. But what changed my tune about spinach forever was a dish I tried in 1993 at Jaleo, a tapas restaurant in Washington, DC (where a then little-known guy called Jose Andres was running the kitchen). The spinach was wilted, cooked in olive oil, scented with garlic and tossed with raisins and pine nuts. It changed my life. (Twenty years later, the dish is still on the menu.)

For a vegetable that has flourished for millennia in the Mediterranean, it’s a funny thing to say that spinach has grown up. But here in Popeye land, our palates certainly have, and our relatively newfound respect for spinach reflects a certain culinary maturity. Still, my inner child is beyond pleased to bid adieu to the pre-fabbed stuff in a box.

Brief History

Culinary historians agree that the birthplace of spinach is southwest Asia, with a particular eye on Persia. In fact, it was known as the “Persian green” in China when it arrived from Nepal in the mid 7th century.

The consensus is that Arab traders deserve the credit for bringing spinach (or sabinikh, in Arabic) to the Mediterranean. It remains unclear who sowed the seeds; some point to the Saracens, who may have brought greens to Sicily in the early ninth century. By the 10th century, influential physicians were singing spinach’s praises; many point to the renowned Rhazes (aka al-Razi) for the first written documentation of spinach’s role in diet and health. By the twelfth-century agronomist Ibn al-Awam, an Arab who lived in Spain, referred to spinach as the “prince of leafy greens” in his work. 

Spinach apparently also endeared itself to royalty. As the story goes, when teen bride Catherine de Medici married Henry II, King of France in 1533, she shared her love for spinach and declared that any dish containing spinach would be dubbed “a la Florentine,” a reference to her native city, Florence. The term is still found on menus today.

By 1568, spinach was being grown in England, where it became popular, as it filled a void in spring (and during the Lenten season) when vegetables were scarce.

English settler John Winthrop, Jr., governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, bought “spynadge” seed in 1631, and spinach was a staple ingredient in 17th century English colonial gardens.  A boiled “sallet” of spinach was one of the many ways spinach was prepared at Plymouth colony, according to the historians at Plimoth Plantation.

Thomas Jefferson planted spinach in his gardens at Monticello as early as 1774 and well into his retirement.

In 1806, spinach made its debut in American seed catalogs. 

In 1930, around the same time that Popeye the Sailorman stepped into the comics scene (more on him in a bit), Clarence Birdseye, an American inventor, launched Birds Eye Frosted Foods, a line of frozen food. Spinach was one of the debut offerings.

Factual nibbles

In the 1920s, spinach had a terrible image problem in the US. It was the brunt of the joke in a 1928 New Yorker cartoon that became legendary.  The cartoon shows a mother and daughter at a dinner table. In the caption, written by E.B. White, the mother says: “It's broccoli, dear." Her daughter replies, "I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it."

But another kind of cartoon character would help to turn around public perception of the leafy green in the 1930s. Popeye the Sailorman ate spinach by the can-ful for strength to fight on behalf of his lady love, Olive Oyl. Popeye, who touted the braun-enhancing qualities of eating spinach – “I’m strong to the finish ‘cause I eats me spinach” – became a symbol of everyman vitality, and as a result, spinach consumption in the early 1930s increased by 30 percent.

The town of Crystal City, Texas, hitched a wagon to Popeye’s star, proclaiming itself the “Spinach Capital of the World,” with the launch of an annual spinach festival in 1936. The following year, spinach growers, with the blessing of comic strip creator E.C. Selgar, commissioned a statue of Popeye that was erected across from the city hall. In 1946, Del Monte Foods opened a production facility in the town, and has been canning spinach there ever since.

But Crystal City isn’t the only town with spinach-y bravado. In 1987, Alma, a small town in western Arkansas, decided that it too was the “Spinach Capital of the World.” After all, it was the home of Allens Vegetables, where more than half of all US canned spinach was processed. (That should justify a world-class designation, no?) Every April since 1987, Alma hosts an annual spinach festival and has also commissioned its own Popeye statue (first in papier mache, now in bronze), as well as a water tower declaring its world-class stature.

Two spinach-centric dishes that have earned iconic status are: Oysters Rockefeller, created in 1899 in New Orleans, and Joe’s Special, a ground beef and egg scramble conceived in the 1920s at an Italian restaurant in San Francisco.

Cultivation

Botanically, we’re talking about Spinacia oleracea, a member of the Amaranthaceae-Chenopodiaceae family. Close relatives include Swiss chard, beets and quinoa.

China leads world production, followed by the US and Japan. Here at home, California is the top producing state, both for fresh spinach and “spinach for processing” (i.e. canned and frozen spinach). Nearly 20,000 tons of American-grown spinach went into cans last year, an 11 percent increase from 2011. Arizona, New Jersey and Texas are major spinach states.

There are three types of commercially available spinach in the US: Smooth or flat-leaf; Savoy, characterized by its crinkly, curly leaves; and Semi-Savoy, a hybrid, with slightly crinkly leaves.

Farmers’ markets shoppers may encounter heirloom varieties such as Bloomsdale, Merlo Nero and Viroflay.

Seasonality

Although available year round in supermarkets, spinach is naturally a cool-weather crop, which means that fall and spring are its peak seasons. It cannot tolerate extreme cold or heat.

Environmental Impact

Conventionally grown spinach has some of the highest levels of pesticide residue among supermarket produce, according to the Environmental Working Group for its 2013 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. With a number six ranking, spinach makes the EWG’s Dirty Dozen Plus list. (*Check out our Real Food rule of thumb.)

Conventional spinach has had its share of food safety woes as well. In 2006, a massive E. coli outbreak that resulted in three deaths and more than 200 confirmed illnesses in 26 states was associated with packaged baby spinach. In the seven years since, there have been several additional spinach-related outbreaks, most recently in 2012 when 20 people in fell ill in New York State after eating a spinach and spring mix blend.

We recommend buying locally when possible, inquiring about production methods and above all, washing all leafy greens thoroughly, especially when consuming them raw.

Characteristics

Leaves will either be very crinkly, somewhat crinkly or flat and smooth. Flat-leaf varieties tend to have a thin stem; the crinkly kin possess a more fibrous and thicker stem.

Ever get that fuzzy or filmy feeling on your teeth when eating spinach? That’s the oxalic acid, a naturally occurring compound doing its thing.

Let’s face it; plain ole boiled spinach is bland; it’s mild and slightly vegetal, but when just harvested, can be sweet. Compared to its cousins Swiss chard and beet greens, spinach is borderline boring. But its blank-slate flavor profile is a terrific opportunity to pair it up with zestier playmates (details to follow.)

What to look for

It’s okay if your bunched spinach is loaded with grit, but it’s not okay if your purchase is starting to yellow or smell sour. You want green leaves and stems, firm and upright. Take a pass on anything flabby or mushy.

Nutrition

In the nutrient department, spinach has got it all. One cup of cooked spinach contains four grams of fiber and more than five grams of protein, all clocking in at 41 calories.

Exceptionally rich in Vitamins A and K, spinach delivers big time in calcium, potassium, Vitamins B2 and B6, Vitamin C and iron, as Popeye the Sailor Man promised. Shucks, spinach even has those heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids, plus a respectable serving of choline, a B vitamin that supports the nervous system and snuffs out inflammation.

And if the vitamins and minerals weren’t enough to sell you, spinach is loaded with disease-fighting phytonutrients called carotenoids that are being studied for their links to cancer prevention.

The caveats: Oxalates, which may be an issue for people with kidney or gall bladder conditions; and purines, which can contribute to excess buildup of uric acid, a potential issue with anyone suffering from gout. In addition, the amount of oxalic acid in spinach is enough to interfere with the calcium benefits from spinach. Consult your medical provider for further details.

What to Do with it

There’s a whole world beyond boiled, steamed or creamed spinach. You can stir-fry it, fry it tempura style, purée it for soups or smoothies, fold it into rice and other grains, tuck it into ravioli or lasagna, wilt it into soup or lentils, or stuff it into tomatoes, winter squash or eggplant. For even more ideas, peruse 20 Ways to Get Your Spinach On, a list I compiled several years ago.

For salads and other raw preparations, I recommend using flat-leaf spinach, or young “baby” spinach, which are both tender and slightly sweet. Curlier varieties sometimes can be fibrous, so if using raw, cut into ribbons (aka chiffonade) or into smaller pieces.

Storage

Those tender leaves are vulnerable to decay. Unlike chard, kale and other green leafy friends, bunched spinach keeps, at the most, for a few days in the refrigerator crisper. Moisture is a villain, so dump accumulating water from produce bags and keep spinach unwashed until ready to use. Pre-washed spinach in bags and containers will keep for up to a week, but that’s no reason to get complacent. Eventually, unattended spinach will morph into something akin to pond scum.

Cooking Tips

Bunched spinach is notoriously gritty, so thorough washing – rather than a quick rinse – is a critical first step before cooking. (As mentioned earlier, pre-washed spinach sold in bags and plastic containers should be rinsed under running water.) If you’ve ever had a mouthful of gritty spinach, you know that once is too much.

To clean gritty greens in one fell swoop: Trim the root ends, which often are loaded with sand and dirt. Place a large bowl in the sink and add the greens, then add cold water until the greens are barely covered. Gently swish the greens once or twice, then lift out of the bowl. Empty the water and rinse out any lingering dirt at the bottom of the bowl. Repeat, until there is no evidence of dirt; this could take at least three cycles.

To boil or not? There are varying schools of thought on the matter.  Many cookbook authors – Nigel Slater, Jack Bishop and Deborah Madison, among them – recommend transferring just-washed spinach to a saucepan, using just the residual water that clings to the spinach leaves for a quick wilt. The argument is that fewer soluble vitamins are lost compared to spinach cooked in rapidly boiling water. Nigel Slater also suggests dipping greens into leftover still-boiling pasta water with a slotted spoon for 30 seconds.

But others argue that boiling helps reduce the amount of oxalic acid, which can interfere with calcium and iron absorption.

If the idea of water-wilted spinach seems cruel, you can doctor it up just before serving. Drain the spinach, then place in a skillet with a smidge of your favorite fat – anchovies, bacon, coconut oil, chopped walnuts – for an instant layer of flavor. Dairy fat loves spinach too, making magic in quesadillas, yogurt sauces, as well as creamed spinach, the classic steak house side dish.

No matter the method of preparation, spinach is more than 90 percent water and shrinks like crazy when you cook it. An average-size bunch of spinach will yield two to three cooked side-dish servings.

Lemon and spinach are longtime BFFs, but next time you’ve got an orange in the house, give it a squeeze on those greens. In the absence of citrus, try a spritz of balsamic vinegar just before serving. I’ve been known to whip up an ad hoc mustard-scallion vinaigrette, heated in a skillet, then add spinach, for a hot salad (trust me, they’ll be talking about it for weeks).

The Greeks love dill with their spinach, the Italians love a dusting of grated nutmeg. The Turks love it with ground lamb and the Spanish love to add raisins and pine nuts. Aren’t the possibilities deliciously endless?

Preserving

When life gets in the way of cooking spinach, you can save it from the compost bucket and freeze it. Wash spinach (as detailed in the Cooking Tips section), then boil for two minutes. Transfer to an ice bath to stop cooking. Drain, then dry in a salad spinner (or blot dry with towels). Pack in freezer-safe zip-style bags, date and label, squeeze as much as air out of the bag as possible and place in the freezer.

*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)

Recipe

Spinach Balls in Spicy Tomato Sauce

Adapted from Mediterranean Vegetables by Clifford A. Wright

14 cup uncooked short-grain rice
2 pounds spinach, thoroughly washed and stemmed
14 cup yellow onion, chopped finely
14 cup fresh parsley leaves, chopped finely
2 teaspoons tabil (a Tunisian spice blend; details to follow)
Salt and black pepper to taste
2 cups olive oil or grapeseed oil for frying
1 to 2 large eggs
all-purpose unbleached flour for dredging

For the sauce
14 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons tomato paste, diluted in 2 cups water
2 teaspoons harissa
2 teaspoons ground cayenne (KOD note: I started with 12 teaspoon and it was almost too spicy to enjoy. The sauce would be plenty spicy without it.)


Cook the rice: Place the rice and 12 cup of water in a medium saucepan and bring up to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to a simmer and cook until water is absorbed and rice is tender. (White rice will take about 20 minutes; brown rice about 40.)

Place the washed spinach directly into a large saucepan after washing. (Do not put in salad spinner to dry.) Cover the pot and wilt the spinach over high heat, about 4 minutes, turning once or twice.

Transfer to a colander and with your hands, squeeze any excess water from the spinach. Chop very fine.

Measure out 34 cup of the cooked rice, and place in a mixing bowl, along with the spinach, onion, parsley, tabil, salt and pepper. Form the mixture into 10 balls, about the size of little eggs. Place the balls in the refrigerator to set up, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oil to 375 degrees.

Crack the eggs in a shallow bowl and beat with a fork.

Pour about 12 cup of flour in another shallow bowl for dredging.

Dip the balls in the beaten eggs, then dredge in the flour, shaking off any excess. With a slotted spoon or spider sieve, dip the balls into the hot oil and fry until golden and crisp, 3 to 4 minutes, cooking in batches if necessary. Transfer to paper towels to drain.

Make the sauce: In a shallow, wide skillet or casserole, heat the olive oil. Add the diluted tomato puree, and stir in the cayenne and harissa. Bring up to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover and cook until the mixture is separated, about 10 minutes. Add the balls, increase the heat and cook until the oil emulsifies and the sauce is slightly syrupy, 5 to 6 minutes.

Serve hot.

Makes 2 to 4 servings.

Tabil
2 teaspoons powdered garlic
14 cup coriander seeds
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper

Place all ingredients in a small bowl and stir until completely blended.

Makes about 14 cup.

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