Spinach

Flavorful, easy to cook and seriously nutritious, local spinach arrives with the spring weather.



Photo by Laura Petrilla

This month, the first true green of spring brightens backyard gardens and growers’ fields as emerald spinach leaves unfurl from the soil. While temperatures remain cool and even, the plant grows quickly and can be harvested as early as six weeks after sowing. Planting this much-loved vegetable is an annual ritual that dates back throughout history. Spinach first took root in central Asia and was cultivated in Persia as long ago as the fourth century A.D.

Several hundred years later, spinach was a prized foreign import along with other delicacies like wine and white-sugar cakes. When the Arabs swept into Spain during the 11th century, they introduced Europeans to spinach. Some of its first uses were in sweets such as tarts or flans, combining with eggs, honey, almonds and spices; spinach flavored with nutmeg—a feature of classic Greek Spanakopita—echoes this early practice. Over time, spinach was embraced by European cooks—from Italy to France and England.

In classic French cuisine, it was referred to as “cire-vierge” (or virgin beeswax) because of its ability to meld with other ingredients instead of dominating a dish with its own flavors. During the 16th century, when Catherine de Medici, of Florence, Italy, married the king of France, she brought her own cooks to prepare one of her favorite foods: spinach. This launched the term “Florentine,” which is still used to describe any dish made with the leafy green. The vegetable is known to be one of the healthiest—and for good reason: It’s a source of beta-carotene, an antioxidant that helps reduce potential cancer-causing damage to our DNA, and lutein, which helps reduce the risk of developing cataracts. It’s our richest source of folic acid and an excellent source of vitamin A. When served raw, it’s packed with vitamin C; however, most of the vitamin is lost if you overcook it.

On the other hand, since the volume of spinach is dramatically reduced when cooked on the stovetop, its fiber and nutrients become concentrated and even healthier after cooking. Bringing these nutritional benefits to the table is easy when spinach tastes so delicious. This month, visit one of the many farmers markets (citiparks.net) to remember how good spinach tastes when it’s locally grown.

Whether you want to make the most of using spinach in your recipes or find out the latest on food safety, read on to find out everything you need to know.
 

Selecting

As the most widely grown green in the country, spinach is an everyday grocery item that can be found year-round. But its quality can decline quickly after prolonged shipping or storage, resulting in past-prime leaves that are wilted or yellowed; another sign that it’s over-the-hill is an unpleasant mineral flavor that increases with cooking. Now that spring is here, you can buy locally grown spinach and avoid quality problems: Plants in the flush of first growth yield spinach with a fresh, clean taste and great crunch. Varieties include so-called “savoy” types like Bloomsdale (that’s very easy to grow in your garden at home), which have a heavy, crinkly texture; and kinds such as Melody or Wolter, which are flat-leafed and slightly more delicate. At the farmers market, large-leafed bunches are often a better bargain than small baby leaves, which can wilt quickly.
 

Cooking

Spinach salads are delicious when served cold—try one with fresh strawberries, slivered almonds and poppy-seed dressing—or slightly warm and wilted, tossed with crumbled bacon and goat cheese. There seem to be endless popular dishes—from Southern-style creamed spinach to the classic spinach dip that no Super Bowl party should be without. This green is easy to quickly sauté, although it shrinks dramatically during cooking: A saucepan full of raw spinach will dwindle to about one-tenth the volume after cooking. Spinach is a natural match for savory egg dishes, including omelets or quiche, and a key ingredient in classic recipes.
 

Food Safety

It wasn’t long ago that bagged spinach looked downright scary—during the 2006 E. coli spinach foodborne illness outbreak, to be exact. The event sickened more than 200 people nationwide. The episode’s repercussions were huge, and the industry continues to rebuild today after consumer confidence plummeted and more than $100 million was lost in reduced leafy green sales. So, how safe is spinach now? In 2007, the California LGMA, a strict leafy-greens oversight program, was implemented, and, soon after, Arizona (which, after California, is the nation’s second largest producer) adopted the same standards. Since the programs were enacted, more than 100 billion servings of leafy greens have been grown without any reported contamination episodes. Further protections will come with the FDA Food Modernization Act signed in 2010 by President Obama, although funding for the new law—which will take three years to implement—may be in jeopardy, given the strong anti-spending currents taking hold in Washington, D.C.
 

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