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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The Lowly Lettuce

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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.

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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.