When I was a child, spinach came in a can and was always served boiled to death—how great the day when I discovered fresh spinach and learned to cook it quickly. Then I realized how versatile it is—it can be eaten by itself or as the main ingredient in a recipe, or as a secondary ingredient to add color and flavor to a dish based on grains, meat, or another vegetable. (For ideas, see the last part of this article). And yes, Popeye will be proud of you, too; spinach is high in antioxidants and extremely rich in vitamins A and C.
The freshest spinach isn’t in a bag
Fresh, unpackaged spinach, whether loose or bunched, is usually fresher, and I think the flavor is superior. It’s also easier to see what you’re getting, as sealed plastic bags can hide slimy spinach. At the market, you’ll likely find varieties with smooth leaves (flat-leaf) and crinkled leaves (Savoy). Savoy spinach tends to be darker and less fragile than flat-leaf spinach. Fresh spinach leaves will often still be attached to their roots or “crowns.” Choose the perkiest-looking bunches (with no rot or yellow leaves) and untie them as soon as you get them home. Before cooking, remove the crowns, trim any tough stems, and triple-wash the greens. The only thing worse than the crunch of grit in your teeth is the sound of it between your guests’ teeth.
Both young (“baby”) spinach and mature leaves (often Savoy) are sold packaged and pre-washed. Examine the bags for rot and check the packing dates. And don’t count on pre-washed spinach being grit-free. I always wash it at least once and often twice.
Good partners for spinach are things that add richness or creaminess, or acidity or pungency. Cheese, cream, and eggs have a natural affinity to spinach, adding richness and smoothing its minerally flavor. Good choices include ricotta, goat cheese, mozzarella, Cheddar, Jack, feta, melting cheeses like Swiss, Emmental, and Gruyère, and hard grating cheeses like Parmesan and Asiago. For seasonings, use lemon juice or vinegar for acidity, garlic for pungency, and nutmeg for a smooth, sweet note. Spinach is a perfect partner for shellfish and fish, and it goes well with most meats. Earthy vegetables like butternut squash work well with spinach, as do tomatoes, onions, and roasted red peppers.
A pound of fresh leaves will cook down to about a cup. For a side dish of cooked spinach, figure 8 oz. raw spinach per serving.
Great ideas for using spinach…
• For a warm spinach salad, gently heat some olive oil with a finely minced garlic clove or a sliced shallot, add lemon juice or sherry vinegar, salt and pepper. Drizzle over spinach and garnish with diced bacon or prosciutto fried until crisp.
• Use a balsamic vinaigrette to add both sweetness and acidity to a simple spinach salad. Fancy it up with a garnish of toasted pine nuts and thin strips of sun-dried tomato, or with crumbled Gorgonzola and toasted pecans, or with rounds of goat cheese dredged in breadcrumbs and baked until soft and warm.
• Use young, tender spinach leaves in place of lettuce in sandwiches and wraps.
Sautéed or wilted
• Wilt spinach in hot olive oil with minced garlic, salt, and pepper. Squeeze a little lemon juice over just before serving. Or use sherry or balsamic vinegar instead and toss with toasted walnuts and blue cheese.
• For a new take on quesadillas, add a few leaves of wilted spinach along with chopped scallion and pepper Jack cheese.
• Top pizza dough with caramelized onions, wilted spinach, feta, mozzarella, or ricotta cheese, thin slices of plum tomato, and grated Parmesan.
• Garnish a platter of cheesy polenta with ribbons of spinach and thinly sliced red peppers sautéed with garlic.
• To make creamed spinach, stir cooked chopped spinach into a stock- or milk-based sauce thickened with a little flour and well seasoned with salt, pepper, nutmeg, and a dash of cayenne. Add a splash of cream at the end.
• For a creamy spinach soup, sweat chopped onions in butter, add chopped spinach and wilt, add a little flour, stir, and add hot broth. Enrich with beaten egg yolks and cream. Brighten the flavor at the end with a squeeze of lemon juice and a dash of nutmeg.
• Fry up little fritters or pancakes of chopped wilted spinach (well drained) and chopped scallions, seasoned with salt, pepper, and nutmeg, and bound with a beaten egg and a little flour and cheese. Serve with a dab of yogurt or sour cream.
• For a beautiful risotto, add chopped raw spinach when the rice is about halfway cooked.
• To make a phyllo-wrapped spinach pie, chop wilted spinach and scallions and blend with beaten eggs, crumbled feta, salt, and pepper. Fold spoonfuls of the mixture in buttered phyllo pastry and bake in a hot oven until golden.
Spinach in the garden
Spinach thrives in cool weather, but most varieties bolt when things heat up. For a long season of harvest, sow every ten days, starting in mid-spring and continuing as long as daytime temperatures are below 70°F. For early and late plantings, sow coldresistant varieties, like ‘Tyee’ and ‘Melody’. As temperatures climb, sow bolt-resistant types like ‘Bloomsdale’ or ‘Teton’.