Savoring Spinach

Spinach is a mainstay in our Vermont garden. It's the first crop we plant in spring (it shares a bed with the peas), and months later, it's one of the last of the "hardy" crops to be harvested. The day the spinach seeds go into the ground in mid-April symbolizes the beginning of the gardening season for us. Just a few weeks later, we begin thinning the rows for salads, and soon after that, we harvest larger leaves for our first spinach phyllo pie. If we get plenty of rainfall, those same rows will yield enough greens for freezing for midwinter eating.

While I occasionally use store-bought spinach, the flavorful, crisp leaves of the homegrown variety are something I'll never be without. No other vegetable is so easy to prepare and so versatile -- I use it fresh in salads, soups and a whole slew of main-course meals. Plus, spinach is packed with nutrition. It's higher in iron, calcium and vitamins than most cultivated greens, and it's one of the best vegetable sources of vitamins A, B and C.

While the majority of vegetables are most nutritious when eaten raw, spinach is at its nutritional peak when slightly cooked, providing an impressive 2.2 grams of protein, 151 mg of calcium and 3.1 mg of iron (as good as fish and eggs!) per cup of cooked greens.

From Garden to Table

I like to harvest spinach early in the morning, at its maximum freshness, though you can also harvest late in the afternoon if peak nutrition is what you're after. Cut the plants at ground level, just below where the leaves come together, or take single, larger leaves from the outside of the plant, allowing the younger leaves to continue growing.

Take your time washing spinach leaves. There are no shortcuts to rinsing out all the grit trapped in the wrinkly leaves of savoyed types. To clean the leaves, soak them in a sink filled with lukewarm water. Remove the roots with a knife or snap them off, setting them aside for later use. Gently swish the leaves in the water and then let them sit for several minutes to allow the dirt to settle to the bottom of the sink. Transfer the spinach to the opposite sink or a large bowl and repeat this process until no dirt is left after draining. I spin the greens dry in a salad spinner and spread them out lightly on a tea towel to drain.

The cleaned spinach is now ready to be cooked, tossed in a salad or refrigerated for a short time sealed loosely in a plastic bag. When cooking, keep in mind that many of the vitamins and minerals will be lost if the spinach is overcooked. Blanch spinach in a minimal amount of water, and try to absorb the water back into the spinach by blending in butter to make a sauce.

Spinach Specifics

The very best spinach comes from your own garden, where you can harvest the leaves at their prime. You can grow a variety of spinach types to fit your cooking needs. Spinach cultivars are divided into three groups by leaf type: savoy (wrinkled leaf), semi-savoy and smooth. Selecting the right type of spinach for a recipe is as important as knowing the difference between baking and boiling potatoes.

Savoy-leafed varieties, such as 'Indian Summer' and 'Winter Bloomsdale', are the kinds most commonly grown here in the U.S. They tend to be hardy, disease-resistant and tolerant of summer heat. Savoyed types also produce more food per unit of space, since their leaves have more surface area and the plants tend to grow larger.

Smooth- or round-leafed spinach varieties, such as 'Space' and 'Vienna', are more common in Italy and other European countries. These types produce broader, more tender leaves but are more likely to bolt (form a seed stalk) in hot weather. They're the best spinach for salads, for very fresh, tender salad greens and for freezing. Semi-savoy kinds, suc as 'Melody' and 'Tyee', combine some of the traits of each. 'Melody', for example, is an upright spinach with large thick leaves and a good yield. 'Tyee' is the most bolt-resistant of the semi-savoy types, and it has a more upright growth habit. It lasts a week longer than 'Indian Summer' without bolting.

Growing Spinach

Preparing a spot for spinach in the garden is best done in the fall so that, come spring, you can sow the seeds outdoors as soon as the ground thaws. Or, if you live where winters are mild, you can prepare soil and plant in fall.

For the best crop, you'll need a well-manured, well-worked loamy soil in sun or partial shade that has a pH of 6.4 to 6.8. We plant our first spring crop on the outside of our three-foot-wide pea beds.

Spinach grows quickly, increasing in yield right up to the full heat of summer. When daily temperatures go above 70° F, spinach goes to seed in a hurry. For a continuous supply, we plant weekly from April 15th until a few weeks before the ground freezes. In hot regions, stick to spring and fall sowings or grow some spinach substitutes.

Once the seedlings appear, thin plants to four to six inches apart and provide plenty of water to produce succulent leaves and slow down bolting. Mulching around the rows will help keep the soil cool and prevent rain splatter.

The recipes listed here are my family's favorites, and they've received rave reviews from guests and friends as well. Use these ideas as a starting point to create your own spinach repertoire.

Spinach Phyllo Pie

A variation of the traditional Greek spanakopita, I serve this family favorite alongside creamy tomato soup.

Preparation and cooking time: 65 minutes
2 tablespoons safflower oil
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 yellow onion or Walla Walla sweet type, peeled and chopped
8 cups spinach (savoy or smooth-leafed)
3 eggs
1/2 cup cottage cheese
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 package phyllo dough (defrosted according to package instructions)

Preheat oven to 375° F. Heat oil and 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and sautee until golden (3 to 5 minutes). Meanwhile, wash spinach well in warm water, then transfer to the skillet with water still clinging to the leaves. Stir, cover and cook until spinach is reduced but still bright green. Remove lid and continue to cook until most of the water has evaporated.

Beat eggs in a food processor until frothy. Add the spinach mixture to eggs and quickly chop. Blend in cottage cheese and nutmeg. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.

In a small saucepan, melt the remaining 1/2 cup butter. Using a pastry brush, paint the inside of a casserole dish (approximately 8"x12"x3") with the melted butter. Place two sheets of phyllo in the dish and, using the pastry brush, sparingly coat the top layer with melted butter. Repeat this layering and buttering process eight times. Pour in the spinach filling. Place two sheets of phyllo on top of the filling and repeat the layering and buttering step eight more times. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes until the top turns golden brown. Serve warm. (Leftovers can be served chilled the next day with a luncheon salad.) Serves 4 to 6.

The Ultimate Fresh Spinach Salad

One of the advantages of growing your own spinach is harvesting the spinach crowns -- the root ends of the plant with about two inches of stem attached. The Chinese call them "parrot beaks" because of their colorful red tips. Crowns are only good fresh, as they toughen with age. Blanch them in boiling water and toss with greens for an interesting salad.

Preparation time: 20 minutes
1 cup spinach crowns (see above)
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 clove garlic, cut in half
2 tablespoons good-quality vinegar (Balsamic, sherry or basil)
2 teaspoons Dijon-style mustard
1 teaspoon maple syrup or sugar
2 cups smooth-leafed spinach, washed and thoroughly dried
2 cups mixed salad greens
1 small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 cup homemade croutons
1/4 cup crumbled goat cheese
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Bring a pot of water to a boil and blanch spinach crowns until tender, about 4 minutes. Drain, cool and dry.

Meanwhile, season a wooden salad bowl by sprinkling with salt and rubbing with garlic halves. Mince the garlic halves and place in the bowl. Whisk in vinegar, mustard and maple syrup or sugar. Add spinach, salad greens and spinach crowns and toss with the vinegar mixture. Add onion, croutons and cheese. Heat oil until it is very hot, just short of smoking. Pour the hot oil over the salad, turning the leaves with a pair of tongs to coat each leaf. Taste and season with more vinegar, if needed. Serves 2 to 4.

Spinach Enchiladas

This dish can be made with spinach or any of its close cousins. The "heat" can vary, depending on the salsa you use.

Preparation and cooking time: 45 minutes
1 yellow onion, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
3 tablespoons safflower oil
1/4 cup chopped hot peppers, or 1/2 cup chopped bell pepper
8 cups spinach (savoy or smooth-leafed)
8 corn tortillas
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
1 cup salsa

Preheat oven to 375° F and oil an ovenproof casserole dish. In a skillet over medium heat, sautee onion and garlic in oil until golden. Stir in peppers and cook for 3 minutes. Meanwhile, wash spinach well in warm water, then transfer to the skillet with water still clinging to the leaves. Stir and cover. Reduce heat to low, and cook until the spinach is wilted (5 to 8 minutes). While the spinach is cooking, wrap tortillas in a moist towel or foil and soften them in the oven (or heat them rapidly on the stove in a skillet with a touch of oil). Place 1/4 cup of the spinach mixture in the center of each tortilla. Roll up the tortilla and place, seam side down, in the casserole dish. Repeat with the remaining tortillas. Top with cheese and salsa. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until heated through and bubbly. Serves 2 to 4.

Spinach Substitutes

Though spinach is easy to grow in spring and fall, it can be hard to keep through the hot summer. Plant these warm-weather spinach cousins for midsummer harvests.

New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia expansa) is a close kin to beets and Swiss chard. It has a vigorous, spreading habit and can reach two feet tall. As with beets, each seed is actually a fruit and will produce several plants. To hasten germination, soak seeds overnight in warm water prior to planting.

Malabar spinach (Basella alba) is a good plant to grow if space is limited, because the plants can be trained to climb on a fence or trellis. We saw Malabar spinach in Holland, trained as a topiary around a circular wreath frame.

Orach (Atriplex hortensis) is closely related to lamb's-quarters and comes in a range of colors, from green to yellow to red. It can rapidly reach six feet tall but is most edible before it reaches a foot.

Our favorite spinach substitute is 'Perpetual Spinach Beet', a chard that produces fine-textured spinachlike leaves with much smaller stems than other chards. Because it is a biennial, it will not go to seed in hot weather and is very much a cut-and-come-again green, supplying a steady source of tender green leaves from spring until fall.

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