Not your Mother’s Spinach

Every person I know who has lived long enough to pass that half century mark tells of the green slime, called spinach, their mothers tried to feed them. Our mothers, bless their good intentions, slapped spoonfuls on our plates and told us, “Eat up! It will make you strong and healthy.” Most of us learned self-discipline over a plate of spinach as we struggled to control our gag reflex long enough to swallow the goop.

But our mothers were right about it being good for us. In the world of leafy greens, spinach is a superstar, containing high levels of folate and vitamins K, C, A and antioxidants lutein and glutathione. It’s also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins E, B1, B2 and B6 and the minerals manganese, magnesium, potassium, zinc and copper.

To get maximum benefit of spinach’s nutrients, you should eat it both raw and cooked, since your body can more efficiently extract some of nutrients in the raw form and others when the spinach is cooked. But, sorry Mom, you don’t have to cook it into a gelatinous glob of slime in order to benefit.

I confess, I would much rather eat my spinach raw than cooked and in the winter and early spring I can’t seem to get enough spinach salad even if I eat it every day. Of course, the spinach coming out of our green houses in January and February is especially tasty, since the cold growing conditions concentrate the sweetness from the limited hours of sunlight.

Over the years, I’ve created an unlimited number of salad variations to suit my mood and palate. Spinach, dark-roasted hazelnuts, fresh feta, and chopped apples with a hot apple cider and honey dressing has been my favorite this year.

Gazelle spinach topped with cranberries, sunflower seeds and gouda.

If I want to turn my salad into a meal, I top the spinach with sautéed chicken breast and caramelized onions, chunks of Havarti cheese, dried cranberries, and sunflower seeds. I dress it with a simply with a red wine vinegar and hazelnut oil blend, sweetened with just a drizzle of honey. Serve it with toasted whole wheat bread and you have an elegant meal that you can throw together in about 15 minutes.

When my kids were small, their favorite was chopped spinach, shredded carrots, queso blanco chunks generously tossed with a hot (as in temperature) bacon and sweet and sour dressing.

I have an ongoing argument with a friend (no worries, no bloodshed involved) whether cooked spinach is better steamed or sautéed. Since he doesn’t use the internet, I can admit here that he makes the best steamed spinach ever. (No, I am not going to tell you who it is, because one of you will tell him what I said and he will think he wins!) His trick is to have the water at a rolling boil and then drop the spinach in the steam basket, cover and steam for  2 to 3 minutes depending on the quantity of spinach. It comes out perfect every time. A little butter, sea salt and a splash of vinegar or a touch of lemon juice and it is awesome.

When I do the cooking, I sauté onions and finely chopped carrots, just until the carrots are starting to soften and then I add the chopped spinach and stir it around just until the spinach wilts, usually less than a minute. Remove immediately from the heat and serve with sea salt and sprinkle of fresh herbs.

While few people who live this far north have the facilities for growing spinach through the frigid winter months as I do, you can still get an early start  and enjoy spinach almost as soon as the snow is gone. Before I had the greenhouses, I planted a generous amount of spinach in my garden in September. It would usually get a few true leaves before the ground froze. If I got a chance before it snowed, as soon as the ground was frozen, I covered the spinach plants with a layer of leaves or straw.  When the snow was gone in the spring, I uncovered my spinach and usually within a week or two I was harvesting fresh spinach.

If you didn’t plan that far ahead, don’t worry!

Red Kitten spinach is delicious but does best either in the greenhouse over winter or planted outside in the fall.

Spinach can be planted in the spring as soon as the ground can be worked. If you are one of our loyal farmers market customers who loves our red-veined spinach, don’t try to plant your own in the spring. Red-veined spinach tends to bolt as soon as the weather really warms up which means about the time the plant starts getting its true leaves, it will shoot up a flower stalk and make seed instead of giving you delicious spinach leaves. So choose a heat-tolerant variety instead. We’ve had good results with Space and Gazelle for spring planting.

Plant the seed about half inch deep and at least 2 inches apart. (If you get them too thick, you can always thin out a few after they germinate.

Those thin green shoots are the beginning of a delicious spinach plant.

The first leaves look nothing like spinach leaves. You will see two long thin leaves pushing out of the soil first. About a week later, the plant will start making a true leaf. In about a month, you can start picking. If you pick only the leaves as they get as big as you would like them, the plant will continue making more leaves. If you are eating spinach mostly raw, this is a good plan. If you are cooking your spinach, you are better off letting the plant mature. The plant will make a cluster of good sized leaves in 6 to 8 weeks and you can just cut the whole plant. The plant will not regrow, but by then, hot weather is probably right around the corner and the plant would bolt anyway.

Once picked, spinach leaves will usually hold in the refrigerator for up to three weeks as long as they are not too wet. You can put a paper towel in the bag or container to absorb excess moisture. Spinach can also be dipped in boiling water, drained and then frozen for use later.

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Beautiful Beets

Beet 6I used to think beets were a winter food. When I was growing up, beets were pickled or pressure-canned in the summer months and stored for winter use. My German mother thought every meal should have something either pickled or fermented. In spite of my mother’s best efforts, I’ve never acquired a taste for either. However, when my Irish grandmother used the canned beets in beef stew, I liked that.

But my serious enjoyment of beets didn’t come until I was an adult and experienced baby beet greens in a salad for the first time. An early spring mix of spinach, beet greens and watercress, drizzled with a raspberry vinaigrette, had me hooked. Then I discovered roasted baby beets with caramelized onions and tarragon, and my love affair with beets began. Last year after a nasty cold left me feeling totally run down, Tim at Zula, recommended their red juice made from beets, carrots, cucumber and ginger. So now, I can either eat or drink my beets. I even make a sandwich spread with roasted beets and garlic!

Beets come in different colors, white, gold, candy-striped and two shades of red. If you are concerned with consuming as many anti-oxidants as you can, go with the darkest red beets you can get. If you are not keen on the earthy flavor of red beets, try the gold or white. I like them all and choose the variety to match what I am serving. Beet 3A roasted beet salad gets some of each for the color and flavor contrast. A bed of sautéed beet greens, topped with sliced golden beets, has incredible eye-appeal in addition to the flavor contrast of the slightly bitter greens and the sweetness of the roasted golden beets.

With so many ways to serve beets, you can eat them regularly without boredom setting in. Here’s a quick and easy trick if you don’t have much time to cook: shred the beet root and sauté in butter or olive oil. It only takes a few minutes. Add your favorite herbs and voila! You have a beautiful side dish.

Don’t ignore the greens. Whether you are purchasing your beets from the farmers market or growing your own, you will want to separate the greens from the root bulb before storing them in your refrigerator. Otherwise, the greens will continue to draw their sustenance from the root. Since the root is no longer drawing its sustenance from the soil, the green will suck the moisture out of the bulb, leaving it soft and dehydrated. To use the greens, sauté or steam them like you would other greens. Top with your favorite vinaigrette and little feta. You can also add them to egg or pasta dishes.

For a great salad that works well for either a delicious lunch or as a side dish, roast and dice red beets. Add to cooked and cooled wild rice, along with finely diced green onions, tarragon and lemon juice. Add enough vanilla yogurt to make the salad as moist as you like it and then toss in some toasted hazelnuts or walnuts. I am partial to the roasted hazelnuts from Hazelnut Valley Farm in Lake City, MN. The salad will hold well in your refrigerator for up to a week (it usually disappears before the week is up).

A note on roasting beets, I find it easier to roast them whole, with the skin on. The time required to roast depends of the diameter of the beet, anywhere from 30 minutes for golf ball size to an hour and half for baseball size. After roasting and cooling, the skin slides off quite easily. Once roasted, you can store them for up to a week in your refrigerator to use as desired. Once you start doing this, you will be amazed at all the dishes you can add beets to. Soup, stews, pasta, salads, sandwiches. The possibilities are endless.  The trick is to have them ready!

Growing your own beets is not terribly difficult. Beets require a fair amount of space to get to the size of a baseball, so before you start planting make sure you have enough room to grow as many beets as you would like to use. Beets do best in a rich soil, high in organic matter.

Beets and Buckwheat 044Beet seed is rather interesting to look at, it is not round and smooth or long and straight. It is spherical, but with a rough, pocked surface. You will want to plant the seeds about an inch deep and about 2 inches apart, firming the soil over the top. Germination can be tricky. The seeds like to be kept moist, but not soggy. The soil temperature should be consistently between 55 and 60 degrees for the best results. Once your beet greens emerge, be careful not to over-water, as they are susceptible to damping off.

Beets and Buckwheat 019As the beets grow, you may find that you need to thin the plants to give the roots more space to develop. I wait until the roots are about an inch in diameter and then pull enough to give the rest a proper spacing. The thinnings end up in beet green fritattas or other savory dishes.

In about 2 months, your beets should be large enough to harvest. Pull them out and cut off the greens about an inch above the root. If you plan to store them in your refrigerator for any length of time (they will keep for months), gently wash off most of the dirt, taking care not to damage the skin. Allow the beets to air dry and then store in a container that allows a bit of air movement rather than in a plastic bag. Refrigerate until you want to use and then rewash to remove any remaining dirt. The bit of stem left on the beet may have gotten moldy, just cut it off. If you have the beets in your refrigerator long enough, they may grow new leaves, this is normal. Just cut off the leaves and use the root.

The Lowly Lettuce

Plastic 003

Lettuce is so ubiquitous, it is often overlooked. When was the last time you heard someone say lettuce was their absolutely favorite vegetable? Yet lettuce is the most commonly eaten vegetable in the United States. Potatoes rank second, unless you measure pounds consumed rather than servings, in which case, potatoes are first and lettuce is second. Fast-food to gourmet meals, lettuce shows up everywhere.

I discovered lettuce at a very early age, perhaps less than two. I could toddle around enough to wander out to the garden and help myself to a handful. I remember being teased because I called it “mettis”, a strange amalgamated word that sprang from my grandfather’s laughter over a comic involving Dennis the Menace eating a salad. Hey, I was only two!

Regardless of what I called it, my experience and memories of lettuce were a far cry from iceberg, which has become the standard fare. Lettuce 054Dark green buttercrunch with its robust texture and sweet flavor, delicate, deep red oakleaf with a slightly bitter taste, Lettuce 056frilly looseleaf lettuces in all shades of green and red, even mottled and speckled; the variation and beauty thrilled my young heart and I grazed indiscriminately, ripping out handfuls in my little hands, leaving behind ragged leaves to be harvested for dinner, much to my fastidious mother’s chagrin and my nutrition-minded grandmother’s delight.

To this day, I love lettuce. Rows of different colors and textures still thrill my heart. I may pick one leaf at a time to sample, but I still can’t resist grazing my way through the lettuce beds. I have found kindred spirits at the farmer’s market. I like to display 3 or 4 different varieties of lettuce heads nestled side by side and it doesn’t take long before I hear, “Those lettuces are so gorgeous! I didn’t know there were so many different kinds!” and then we talk about flavors and which ones to use for salads and sandwiches and as beds for salmon and pasta salads.

I could write a book on lettuce pairings: the best dressing to showcase the unique flavors and texture of each kind, choosing the complimentary herbs, selecting the right vegetables, fruits and nuts to accessorize your salad. Don’t laugh, there is an art to this. That’s why some of us are chefs and food critics. Seriously, I don’t want to see you putting cherry tomatoes on my red oakleaf or asparagus on my jericho romaine. It’s just not right!

Since I don’t have space here for the Book of Lettuce, let me give you a few guidelines.

Delicate textures and delicate flavors fare well with very light dressings of oil, vinegar and occasionally a bit of honey. Herbs should also be delicate, a bit of baby dill, a hint of mint, or a small sprinkle of snipped chives. Wood sorrel is also good. Generally, these lettuces should be enjoyed without other veggies. If you really must have something else, shaved carrot or very thinly sliced spring onions work as a garnish, don’t overdo.
Heavier lettuces, like buttercrunch and romaine, can handle thicker dressings and can be garnished with cherry tomatoes, roasted beets, cucumbers, apples, pears or other fruits. They also add a nice crunch to a BLT and work well as a bed for fruit or pasta salads.

Mature lettuces, either heads or larger leaves, will have more flavor than their baby counterparts. Baby lettuce mixes generally get their flavor from leaves that are not lettuce: beet greens, mustard greens, or Swiss chard. Taste the lettuce before you dress it up, so you can make it shine.

What to try something different? Make lettuce soup! I saute onion in butter, then add diced potatoes and carrots, and stir them around a bit in the hot pan before adding about a quart of water. Simmer for about 10 min and then add chopped lettuce and fresh herbs if desired. Simmer about 5 minutes. Use a blender to puree until smooth and then season to taste.

Since lettuce is consumed by nearly everyone, it always surprises me that people are ignorant of some of the basics of lettuce. Here are a few misconceptions that I feel compelled to clear up.Lettuce 050
Lettuce exudes a thin milky sap from its stem and leaves when cut. This is normal, just wash it off. There is nothing wrong with the lettuce, it is not “poisonous,” it has not “gone bad.”
When you buy lettuce at the farmers’ market and it gets a little wilted on the way home, do not throw it out. Just immerse in cold water, drain and refrigerate. It will rehydrate.
Lettuce stores best if it is not wet. Spin or shake off the excess water before storing. A paper towel in the bag or container will soak up excess moisture. The leaves will turn slimy if they stay wet.

Lettuce is an easy plant to grow from seed and it is so much fun to look at all the different varieties available. Even if you don’t have a garden, you can grow lettuce provided you have sunshine. It will do well in containers, or tucked in flower beds. Sprinkle a few seeds and cover with about ¼ to ½ inch soil. Water well and make sure the ground stays damp until you see the little shoots emerge in 5 to 7 days. Lettuce germinates best in soil that is between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. If you are growing it indoors, make sure it has plenty of sun or it will get leggy and tip over. Other than that, regular watering or rain is all you need and in 28 days, you can be eating lettuce.

Lettuce 047

A head of lettuce cut high enough so the plant will regrow.

If you are growing heads of lettuce, it will take up to 48 days for the head to be fully formed. You can harvest just the leaves and the plant will grow more leaves. If the plant gets too hot or too dry, it will bolt, which means the center stalk will shoot up and the leaves will be spread out on the stalk, rather than staying tightly together. If this happens, cut it off and just use the leaves.

Palate Pleasing Parsnips

Palate Pleasing Parsnips

Parsnip 5You should see all the disbelieving, confused and bewildered looks I get when I say that parsnips are my favorite early spring vegetable.

Most people associate parsnips with fall, along with most other root vegetables. You can dig parsnips in the fall; if you like hard, starchy, and slightly bitter roots. Parsnips dug in the fall generally end up in stews or soups, often just as a filler vegetable, not because they adds any sparkling flavor. Quite honestly, I have never figured out why people bother with fall parsnips.

Freshly dug parsnips at the end of March.

Freshly dug parsnips at the end of March.

My grandfather was a parsnip lover, too. Every spring, he planted parsnips in an out-of-the-way spot so they could grow undisturbed and rest in the ground over the winter. As soon as the snow melted in the spring and the ground thawed enough to dig, he would go out to his parsnip patch and dig a bucketful. Back at the house, Grandma peeled enough for a feast, then she sliced and fried and filled plates so we could gorge ourselves on this amazing root that had turned sweet and mellow over the winter.

Fried and ready to eat!

Fried and ready to eat!

I have to confess that fried parsnips are still my favorite, although I love them other ways, too. Roasted parsnips are my second favorite. Thick chunks of parsnip, carrot, onion and garlic are tossed with olive oil and roasted at 350 degrees until they are tender. The length of time this takes varies with how thickly you cut the veggies and how many you’ve squeezed on the pan. To speed the process, cover the pan for the first 15 to 20 min. This holds the moisture in and partially steams the vegetables. Then uncover to finish roasting. Turn the veggies over several times throughout roasting so they brown on more than one side. Sprinkle with a little salt, drizzle with balsamic vinegar if you like, or if you have a sweet tooth like my grandpa, drizzle on a little honey or maple syrup. I just use salt, but do whatever suits your palate. No rules here!

Parsnip and carrot soup is also fantastic. Use your favorite carrot soup recipe and substitute parsnips for half the carrots. I like to simmer the parsnips and carrots in my homemade vegetable broth until tender. Then I puree the whole works and add salt, pepper and lots of ginger. Very invigorating on a cold, damp spring day.

Parsnips au gratin are awesome. There are many ways to prepare this, so I leave it to you to find the recipe that is most appealing to your taste buds. I use lots of cream, sauteed onions, thyme and cheese. A bit calorie-laden, but a wonderful indulgence with friends and a glass or two of wine.

Once you get started with spring harvested parsnips, you will become enamored and start thinking, “I could use parsnips with the last of my winter squash,” or “wouldn’t they be amazing with broiled fish?” I indulge two of my spring cravings at once by sauteing the parsnips in butter, and then adding nettles and serving it over wild rice.

If you would like to grow your own spring treat, you need to start early in the season, as soon in the spring as the ground can be worked. Make a shallow trench, about an inch deep. Thinly sow the seed in the trench, parsnips will get large if you have rich soil, so make sure they have plenty of room. Keep the soil moist until you see the leaves poking through the ground. Mulch heavily with leaves or grass clippings to keep the soil moist and reduce weeds. In the fall, make sure your row is marked so you can find it when the snow melts. You don’t need to cover the row or protect it in any way, unless marauding deer are a problem. They will dig down and take a big chomp off the top of the parsnips. Laying something (other than mulch) over the top of the parsnips usually ends this problem.

Here are what the parsnip leaves look like in early spring. When you see these leaves, you will want to dig up your parsnips!

Here are what the parsnip leaves look like in early spring. When you see these leaves, you will want to dig up your parsnips!

In the spring, go out to your patch, dig and eat! If you have planted more than you can consume in a couple of weeks, dig, wash, and store the rest in your refrigerator in a plastic bag or covered container. They will hold for 4 to 8 weeks.

 

Nettles, Beyond the Sting

Nettles 3





“Ouch! I am not touching those things. Why would I grow nettles in my garden?” is the most common response when I tell people that every garden should have a couple of patches of stinging nettles.

Stinging nettles do live up to their name. They have tiny, hollow, hair-like structures called trichomes that contain a blend of chemicals. When skin brushes against these tiny hairs, the tips come off the trichomes and the chemicals are released. People experience a mild to severe reaction to these chemicals, depending on their level of sensitivity. My mother will have large blisters that persist for more than a week if she has the slightest contact with stinging nettles. I, on the other hand, rarely have any sort of reaction. When I was a child, my mother was determined to rid our backyard of her nemesis. After making sure every bit of her skin was covered, she mowed down the entire patch every week. I thought the stinging sensation felt really cool on my feet, so I ran barefoot through the freshly mowed patch. Whether or not this gave me some sort of immunity is open to debate, but today I can harvest nettles bare-handed. By the way, nettles can be easily rendered stingless before eating. They need only to be washed in hot water, dipped in boiling water, sauteed or roasted. You can eat them without having to worry about what they will do to your mouth.

So why would you grow nettles? For their flavor, nutrition and health benefits. Nettles are high in vitamins A and C, high in minerals calcium, potassium, iron and manganese. In mid-season, the protein levels are also high. Health benefits from nettle consumption are numerous: it reduces inflammation in arthritis sufferers, treats kidney and bladder problems, combats anemia, reduces the severity of PMS, asthma, and seasonal allergies. The list goes on and on. Basically, nettles will probably help whatever is wrong with you unless you are taking blood thinners. People on blood thinners should not consume nettles because they are high in vitamin K.

Nettles 1

Regardless of the benefits of nettles, you probably won’t eat them more than once unless you like their flavor. I find them to be one of those spring greens that I start to crave about mid-March. Their flavor is somewhat reminiscent of cooked spinach, but with a more wild flavor.

I use nettles through out the growing season. Nettles are the most tender in the early spring. I like to steam or saute them and serve them with wild rice.

 

Nettles 2When ramps (wild leeks) are available, I saute spring harvested parsnips, ramps, and nettles and serve them over wild rice. The flavors blend and complement each other well in a joyous celebration of spring. (Here, in Minnesota, spring is always a cause for celebration!)

 

By the time my mint plants are showing vigorous growth, I switch to making nettle soup. I pile a bunch of washed nettle leaves in my soup pot, along with a chopped spring onion or two, and a handful of fresh mint. Then I pour in enough of my homemade vegetable stock to cover the greens and simmer until the onions and nettles are tender. Puree the whole works either with an immersion blender or in a traditional blender. Serve at room temperature or chilled. It makes a lovely starter for a meal featuring asparagus.

Before the nettles flower and start setting seed, I harvest leaves for drying. The dried leaves are wonderful for a winter tonic tea.

Nettles are easy to grow if your soil is high in nitrogen and phosphorus. It is quite possible you already have them lurking in your yard, possibly near a compost heap or close to your pet’s favorite potty place. They seem to have an affinity for spots that are moist and partially shaded. You can purchase seed or young plants to get your patch started if you aren’t blessed with any volunteer plants in your yard. Seed is a little more tricky, since it has a long germination period. Plants are quick and experience very little transplant shock. Another alternative is to ask someone who already has an established patch if they would share a section of roots. This should be done very early in the spring. Root sections should be dug and replanted immediately. Don’t try to hold them for more than a couple of hours.

Let your nettles get well established during the first year. The second year, you can start harvesting when the nettles are about 4 inches tall. Never cut all the nettles at once. The leaves make the food that feeds the roots of the plant, so if you harvest too much, your plant will starve to death. Quit harvesting when the plants reach maturity and start to blossom. After the blossoms turn to seed and the plant starts to die, you can cut the plants back to ground level. they should return again in the spring! You can spread compost over your patch to ensure the nitrogen levels are high enough to make your nettles happy.