Deep Green Cuisine: SpinachLinda Gabris March 1, 2009
When I was a kid, grandma was forever praising the goodness of greens! Of course, in grandma’s book, “greens” or “potherbs” as she fondly grouped them, referred to anything harvested from the garden or gathered from the wild that could be eaten raw in the salad bowl or cooked in the potherb pot! That took in everything from pigweed to stinging nettles and dandelion leaves which grew in abundance in the backyard meadows and woodlands, as well as beet tops, Swiss chard and the wonderful big patch of spinach that grandpa planted every year in his huge garden. Like grandma, I also group my greens loosely but if I had to pick one that would leave the rest of the leafy family green with envy, it would be spinach, which is as gourmet as a green can get!
Spinach belongs to the chenopodiaceae family and is native to Southwest Asia. It was first cultivated by the Persians and reached Europe around the 16th century. From there, it was brought to the New World by settlers.
There are four main types of spinach: savoy, semi-savoy, flat-leaf and baby. Savoy types of spinach have dark green curly leaves. Flat-leaf varieties have unwrinkled, spade-shaped leaves. Because flat leaf varieties have less crinkles than savoy types, they are the preferred choice of many gardeners – and cooks alike – since spinach prefers sandy soil and thus the flat leaves are easier to rid of sand. Baby spinach is of the flat-leaf variety and the leaves are usually no longer than two or three inches; this is the preferred pick of most spinach connoisseurs.
Although spinach is not usually labeled by variety, there are numerous garden types including America, Bloomsdale, Dominant, Giant Winter as well as other exotic hybrids that make more of a difference to the gardener than to the cook as certain plants are best suited for certain growing conditions and zones.
Of course, from the cook’s point of view, spinach is spinach and when buying at the farmer’s market or supermarket, organically-grown is the one to choose. Baby spinach is the most tender and delicious, especially for eating raw in salads or enjoying piled high on sandwiches. Older or larger spinach leaves are better suited for the pot-herb pot or for traditional recipes where it is cooked and served with seasonings or sauce or used in dishes like quiches.
I never heard of Popeye the Sailor Man when I was a kid as we didn’t have television, but the first time I did catch wind of the little ditty about him “being strong to the finish because he eats his spinach,” I could have sworn the words were written by grandmother who vouched that spinach gave the body a powerful boost of energy! Maybe not enough to give one superhuman powers like Popeye, but certainly enough goodness to warrant eating spinach for good health and well-being.
Aside from grandma’s old claims, modern day research indicates that spinach has various natural benefits and curative properties. It is high in vitamin C and rich in riboflavin, and dishes up vitamin A, vitamin E, B6, thiamin, folate, magnesium, potassium and a host of other nutrients. Since the iron in spinach is in soluble form, cooking water will leach out this mineral, thus the water should not be discarded. It can be added to the soup, stew or gravy pot in order to preserve iron and the other water-soluble nutrients.
In grandma’s old doctoring journals, she has it written that spinach is the number one treatment for constipation, claiming that cooked spinach with the juice intact has the power to cleanse the digestive system and flush impurities out of the body. It’s natural and I can vouch that it works. Good news is, it is not as harsh as commercial laxatives and is also tasty!
According to grandma’s old writings, a good dose of spinach in the diet also helps to build strong hair, bones, teeth and nails. It is further noted that spinach is a number one cure for bad complexion, and that having lots of foliage on the plate keeps one’s heart healthy and brain sharp. Her prescription: Simply eat your greens!
Researchers in recent years have identified numerous different flavonoid compounds in spinach that act as antioxidants and anti-cancer agents. In fact, spinach extracts have been shown to slow down cell division in cancers, especially that of the stomach. It is believed that spinach is also useful at warding off skin, prostate, ovarian and other types of cancers.
A diet rich in spinach is also reputed to ease the symptoms of inflammatory conditions such as asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. Some studies have indicated that the magnesium and riboflavin in spinach helps to control the frequency and severity of migraine headaches. And for good heart health, spinach is an excellent source of folate – believed to help the body fight off heart attack and stroke.
PURCHASING & PREPARING SPINACH
When buying loose spinach (sold in bulk or tied in bundles), choose organically grown leaves that are crisp and green and have a sweet, fresh “just picked” aroma. Do not purchase spinach that has tinges of brown or yellow on the leaves or those that are wilted or have a sour or musty odour. Look for stems that are slightly thin and coarse. This indicates younger spinach. Older plants will have thicker stems which are tougher and slightly bitter. If buying bagged spinach, make sure the contents are resilient when the plastic bag is squeezed and look closely to ensure there are no traces of slimy or wilted leaves.
Fresh spinach is perishable and will lose much of its nutritional value if stored too long. Its prime shelf life in the refrigerator is about six days, after which time it begins to deteriorate. Fresh spinach should be stored loosely in an unsealed plastic bag in the crisper of the fridge and used as soon as possible. If it can’t be used within a week, it should be frozen for safe-keeping. Wash well in cold water and pat dry with paper towels before preparing.
Grandma canned enough spinach from our garden to do us over the winter months but it was a time-consuming chore done out of necessity since she didn’t have a home freezer, and store-bought frozen spinach was unheard of in our neck of the woods. Today, fresh spinach is available year-round at grocery stores and when top quality fresh leaves can’t be found, frozen spinach is the next best choice. Modern day cooks also have the option of buying commercially canned spinach when fresh is out of reach.
Fresh spinach is delicious raw in the salad bowl and can take the place of, or pair up nicely with, any other leafy greens for endless variety. I like spinach piled on top of tacos and sandwiches and I often mix the wonderful rich green leaves in with fruit or jelled salads for exciting colour and flair.
For a quick nibble from grandma’s old recipe files, try dipping fresh spinach leaves in apple cider vinegar that’s been sweetened with honey and a dab of olive oil. This is not only a super fast and delicious way to kick start a meal, but this plain appetizer helps stimulates the appetite and wards off heartburn and acid indigestion.
THE OXALIC ACID CONTROVERSY
According to the website botanical-online.com, “In spite of the many virtues of spinach, people affected by rheumatic or kidney illnesses should abstain from eating it. As a matter of fact, it is not wise to consume it in excess even without presenting these symptoms. The wealth of oxalic acid in spinach combines with other minerals such as magnesium, potassium, and iron, producing oxalates.” These settle in the articulating joints of the body, damaging the tissues or worsening symptoms of some illnesses such as gout, rheumatism, and arthritis. Moreover, oxalates can produce kidney stones, so spinach is not advisable for people with renal problems. Also, excess consumption of plants rich in oxalates can impede the absorption of other minerals necessary for health, especially calcium.
One way to avoid the absorption of most of the oxalic acid is to eat it boiled, changing the water a couple of times before serving it. This will eliminate some of the oxalic acid which leaches out in the water.
According to Dr. Andrew Weil, author of the Anti-Inflammatory Food Pyramid, oxalic acid is a natural product found in spinach and some other plant foods including rhubarb. Concentrations of oxalic acid are pretty low in most plants and plant-based foods, but there’s enough in spinach, chard and beet leaves to interfere with the absorption of the calcium these plants also contain. For example, although the calcium content of spinach is 115 mg per half cup cooked, because of the interference of oxalic acid, you would have to eat more than 16 cups of raw or more than eight cups of cooked spinach to get the amount of calcium available in one cup of yogurt. However, the oxalic acid in vegetables is broken down in cooking and doesn’t interfere with the absorption of calcium present in other foods (cheese for instance)that you might eat at the same time. Says Weil: “I certainly wouldn’t avoid spinach or other leafy greens because of the oxalic acid effect. Spinach has a lot to offer nutritionally”. For more information go to https://www.drweil.com.
Editor’s note: It would appear that those concerned about oxalic acid content in spinach and other vegetables should only eat them cooked, which minimizes oxalic acid. And those with more serious health issues such as cancer or recurring kidney stones should avoid foods high in oxalic acid altogether (ie. spinach, beet greens, swiss chard, and herbs such as sorrel). Overall, the debate on oxalic acid continues. Feel free to have your say by sending a letter to: firstname.lastname@example.org
There are various ways to cook spinach including steaming, boiling, and sautéing. Regardless of which method you choose, it should never be over-cooked. I find that the best way to save the nutrients when cooking is to put the needed amount of spinach into a large kettle – always remember that the bulk of spinach reduces greatly upon cooking so what looks like a huge amount can almost disappear in the pot – and add just enough water to barely cover the bottom of the kettle. Put on the lid and steam for two to three minutes. Remove from the stove. Strain and catch the juice. It can be used to boost the goodness of soup, stew or gravy. Or simply season it with salt and pepper and serve it directly from teacups as grandma often did!
The cooked spinach is now ready to use. It can be seasoned with herbs or spices, dressed with lemon juice or Tabasco sauce, drizzled with butter, crowned with cream or cheese sauce, or used in any recipe calling for cooked spinach.
Below are some of grandma’s Old World recipes and some of my favourite, more new-fangled ways of enjoying the “king of greens.” Try the recipes for good health and great eating.
Grandma’s Dried Spinach Tea
Grandma would spread spinach leaves on breadboards and dry them in the warming oven of her crackling woodstove. Once dry, she’d put them in a tea tin and throughout the growing season, continue to dry as many leaves as she could to add to the tin. The leaves were used in the teapot all winter long.
Spinach tea is similar in taste to imported green tea from China. For those who don’t have a woodstove, the leaves can be dried by spreading a single layer on non-stick baking sheets and drying in the oven with the door ajar at the lowest temperature setting until moisture is gone, about one hour. Remove and cool. Store leaves in a cannister or tea tin.
They can also be dried in the same manner as herbs – by tying in bundles and hanging from the ceiling or dried in a food dehydrator until moisture is gone.
To make tea, use two Tbsp leaves per cup of boiling water. Pour water over leaves in heated teapot and steep until desired strength is reached. Dried orange or lemon peel can be added to the tin and the tea will draw wonderful aroma from it.
One of grandma’s old tricks was to mix equal parts of imported green tea (which she bought from a mail-order catalogue and claimed was very dear) with dried spinach tea to make the expensive tea leaves go a little further.
To make a curative tea to drink as a laxative, boil 3/4 cup water and add a large handful of chopped spinach leaves, boil about three minutes. Season the tonic lightly with sea salt, if desired. For best results, this should be drunk before going to bed. Next morning, so grandma has it written, “you’ll be back on track…”
Grandma was fond of “wilts” and claimed that they were good for the digestive system, helping the stomach to handle richer foods that made up the main course. The secret to a good wilt – use top quality unpasteurized apple cider vinegar. To make the wilt, pack as many fresh spinach leaves as you can into a glass bowl (or jar if it is for picnic fare) that has a tight fitting lid, along with one thinly sliced onion. Do not use plastic as it can cause an off taste. In a small saucepan, heat two cups of apple cider vinegar, one cup water, and enough honey to sweeten. Season the mixture with garlic granules or powder. Heat to boiling, pour over the spinach, cover and steep until cool. Strain and serve cold. The vinegar solution, if kept refrigerated, can be used for several more wilts before discarding.
Oriental Quickie Spinach Soup for Cold and Influenza
This is so versatile and so good. It is perfect preventive medicine and treatment for cold and flu as it contains all the commonly known “virus fighting” ingredients! And it is so easy to make by the cup or by the pot full. Here is the recipe for one serving – multiply it any way you wish.
Put one cup of water into a small saucepan. Add one to two Tbsp soy sauce, one drop each of chili oil and sesame oil, one clove thinly sliced garlic, tiny knob of fresh grated ginger, one finely crushed dried shiitake mushroom, pinch dried chili pepper and few grains of black pepper. Bring to a boil, simmer one minute. Add a huge handful of fresh spinach leaves (or you can use frozen or canned spinach with liquid when fresh leaves are not available). Cover and steep for one minute. Serve in a big bowl with a spoon.
Grandma’s Spinach Soup
When I was a kid, we ate this soup throughout the summer. These days with frozen spinach being within easy reach in my kitchen, I often make this warm, filling soup to take the chill off a winter meal.
(Makes 4 to 6 servings)
2 pounds fresh spinach, washed and patted dry, or about 4 cups frozen spinach
1 quart of homemade vegetable or chicken stock
4 Tbsp olive oil (or butter)
1 minced onion
3 Tbsp flour
Salt and pepper to taste
Bring the stock to a boil, add spinach and cook 5 minutes. Puree until smooth. Set aside. Heat the oil and sauté onion until soft. Add flour and cook until absorbed. Slowly add the puree to the flour mixture, whisking until smooth. Reheat through. If you desire a creamier soup, stir in 1 cup of light cream and heat through. Season with salt and pepper. Ladle into soup bowls and garnish with old-fashioned garlic croutons.
(Makes 6 servings)
Here’s a delicious dip for vegetables, bread sticks or anything that needs dipping! Everyone loves it and it can be made up to a couple days in advance of serving. Put 2 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas into blender or food processor. Add 3 cups raw spinach and 4 cloves peeled garlic. Process until finely chopped. Add ½ cup tahini, juice of 1 fresh squeezed lemon and enough water to work the mixture to desired consistency. Blend in 1 tsp of ground coriander, 1 tsp ground cumin, salt and black pepper to taste. Set in the fridge and let draw at least a couple hours before serving.
Washday Spinach on Toast
(Makes 4 servings)
On washday mornings when I was a kid, we’d get up early in the morning and grandpa and I would draw enough pails of water from the backyard well to fill grandma’s big galvanized washtub which she’d heat on the back of the woodstove for filling up her wringer washing machine. Then more water would have to be drawn for rinsing the clothes in. By noon, we’d all have worked up huge appetites and grandma would often make spinach on toast for lunch as it was fast and filling. I still enjoy it today, even though with my modern day appliances, my washdays are nowhere near as hectic as grandmother’s were!
4 cups spinach
1/4 cup water
2 Tbsp butter
3 Tbsp flour
3/4 cup light cream
Salt and pepper
1 peeled clove garlic
4 thick slices of bread
Steam spinach in water, drain and reserve liquid. In small skillet, melt butter. Add flour and sauté for 1 minute. Slowly add the reserved liquid and cook until smooth. Stir in the cream and cook until thick and bubbly. Season with salt and pepper. Toast the bread until it is very crispy. Rub the garlic over the top side of the toast then butter lightly. Serve the creamed spinach on top of the toast. Grandma served each portion with a little pinch of grated cheddar cheese on top. Today, parmesan is my pick of cheese for garnishing this tasty hot sandwich.
Linda Gabris is an avid cook who enjoys sharing her grandmother’s old recipes and medicinal preparations as they were recorded in the handwritten journals passed down to her. Linda also enjoys gardening and foraging for edible wild foods. Over the years, she has taught cooking courses in Prince George, B.C., with a focus on healthy eating, food preparation, and International cuisine.