When was the last time you heard a kid ask for a second helping of spinach? Everyone knows Popeye’s favorite green is good for you, but it doesn’t win too many popularity contests. And in fairness, when it’s overcooked, spinach can acquire a strong, acidic flavor and leave your mouth feeling dry. But if you cook it gently or don’t cook it at all, spinach has a clean, delicate flavor altogether contrary to its reputation. So around my house, I fight spinach’s bad rap by tossing it in a vibrant salad with lots of tasty toppings and robustly flavored vinaigrettes.
The classic salad with eggs and bacon is delicious, of course, but I like to pique my diners’ interest with fresh new twists, incorporating eclectic flavors and textures from international cuisines ranging from Italian to Asian to Indian. Take my Italian-inspired salad, for instance: I toss the spinach with sautéed mushrooms and Parmigiano and arrange everything on top of garlic-rubbed crostini, so it’s more like a spinach-salad bruschetta.
Heady Indian spices like curry powder and ground cumin add zip to a salad with apples and dried apricots. And I whisk together a vinaigrette of rice vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, and fresh ginger to give a zesty Asian accent to a spinach salad with chicken and cashews.
Texture is as important as flavor. In my salads, I always add at least one ingredient that has a bit of crunch to create some textural contrast. Here, too, I like to span the globe and think beyond toasted nuts and croutons. Crispy pappadams (Indian flatbreads), fried wonton wrappers, and even fried Asian noodles are all great crunchy additions that help give a global flair and a little sophistication to my spinach salads.
Start with fresh, clean, dry spinach. At the market you can usually choose among large bundled spinach, bulk young spinach, or washed and bagged (or boxed) baby spinach. I prefer bundled young spinach because it tends to be more tender and have a cleaner flavor than the large, tough leaves—and it’s not as dirty. Bagged spinach is convenient and works fine, but it can be hard to assess how fresh it is, so it generally doesn’t last as long, unless you luck out on a really fresh batch. No matter what kind of spinach you buy, make sure you wash it carefully to remove all the dirt (I give even bagged spinach a rinse) and dry it thoroughly, since oil-based dressings don’t cling well to wet leaves.