During the depths of winter, spinach is an especially cheering dose of green, a comforting reminder that spring is just around the corner. And as well as being a great way to bring some green into your life in winter, the good news is that good spinach is increasingly available year-round.
The most versatile of cooking greens, spinach is great blanched and creamed, sautéed with brown butter, or wilted and tossed with pasta. Or don’t cook it at all: the spinach salad opposite does double-duty as a fresh and tender pizza topping.
Flat-leafed or savoyed
Spinach grows best during the cool weather of spring and fall, when it’s available everywhere. The winter crops we see generally come from California, Texas, and Florida, while in the summer, production is limited to the coolest growing areas, like the foggy northern California coast.
At the market, look for fresh-looking, brightly colored leaves. Avoid wilted or yellowing leaves. Fresh spinach keeps well for two or three days sealed in a plastic bag in the fridge. Carefully inspect spinach sold in cellophane bags; don’t buy any that’s slimy, yellowed, or shriveled. And don’t think that frozen spinach will be anything but a pale imitation of fresh.
Some spinach leaves are smooth and flat, while others are crinkled or “savoyed.” Both kinds are delicious, and both can be young and tender, but you may find that the savoyed needs extra washing to get rid of the last traces of grit nestled in its crinkles. Because of its crinkles, however, the savoyed stuff has more body and tends to ship better.
You’ll find fresh spinach sold either in bunches or in loose leaves. Loose leaves, easiest to find at greenmarkets or farmstands (and in bags at some supermarkets), come either large or small. Use the large leaves for cooking; save the smaller ones for salads.
Mature spinach with thicker, less tender leaves is the best candidate for cooking, where its mineral quality can be tamed with cream, butter, or cheese. Blanching removes bitterness from older spinach, and it makes further cooking simpler and faster. A testament to its versatility, spinach works with sharp and tangy flavors, like mustard and lemon juice, as well as with creamy, eggy components. Some people report a dry, chalky sensation on the teeth and on the roof of the mouth when eating spinach. Agricultural scientists say that this comes from the leaves’ high concentration of oxalic acid.
Because of the increasing availability of pre-washed leaf-picked spinach, with tender, edible stems, you can cut spinach preparation time to a bare minimum. But don’t stint on washing. Spinach grows in sandy soil, and the tiniest bit of grit can ruin its delicious pleasure.
For every cup of cooked spinach, you’ll need to buy about a pound of fresh.