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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