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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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.