Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Andrea Chesman: Spinach

When my husband was little, he would eat spinach directly out of the can.  It wasn’t a Popeye thing — he just loved spinach. He was shocked — shocked! — to learn that his fellow kindergarteners didn’t share his love for this leafy green.

Fresh spinach from the farmers’ market

We are a family of spinach lovers — fresh or frozen (not canned!). At this time of year we anxiously await the first harvest. A cold frame or greenhouse is needed to get a good crop of early spinach, but that’s not me. Instead I plant my spinach under an apple tree. My spinach isn’t early, but it will be slow to bolt when other gardens have given up on the crop. But the waiting? Easily solved by the professionals at the farmers’ market.

Spinach seedlings

My first introduction to raw spinach was with the ubiquitous spinach and raw mushroom (yuck!) salad in the 1970s. Alton Brown thinks the salad originated among the Pennsylvania Dutch. That salad, with bacon and hard-boiled eggs, soon morphed into a spinach and canned mandarin orange salad, then a spinach and berry salad with raspberry vinaigrette. I avoid them all, but I love cooked spinach.

According to nutritionists, cooked spinach provides greater amounts of vitamins A and E, protein, fiber, zinc, thiamin, calcium, and iron than raw spinach. Heating spinach also helps free up beta-carotene, which your body converts to vitamin A, along with other carotenoids.

When I’m cooking spinach, I like to allow 1/2 pound per person; that’s 6 to 12 cups per person, depending on how you pack it and whether you are measuring baby spinach or fully mature leaves, flat leaves, or crinkled ones. Mature Savoy leaves yield more cups per pound than flat leaves or baby leaves. A half pound sounds like a lot, but spinach cooks down to almost nothing.

Sometimes I sauté a little garlic in olive oil, add the spinach, cover, and cook until the spinach is wilted, about 4 minutes. Or I turn the sautéed spinach into creamed spinach just by adding a little cream or half-and-half. Then I turn the creamed spinach into eggs Florentine by adding freshly grated Parmesan cheese and topping it with a poached egg. Sometimes I even remember to take photographs. . . .

This past week I made my first batch of feta cheese with goat milk. Because I was slow to make the cheese, the flavor of the feta is a little strong. It called for mellowing with other strong flavors.

Homemade feta

Fortunately, Elmer Farm had beautiful spinach at the farmers’ market, so I picked up three pounds. Half went into the pasta, along with the feta cheese, some sausage, garlic, and cannellini beans. I blanched the garlic cloves for 6 minutes in boiling water and added the mellowed whole cloves to the finished dish.

Finished pasta dish featuring spinach, garlic, feta cheese, sausage, and cannellini beans

Tip: If your spinach is coming on faster than you can eat it, cook it. Wilt the spinach in a large pot of salted boiling water. Lift the spinach out of the boiling water and into ice water to stop the cooking. Drain well, then refrigerate. It will hold well for up to 5 days, ready to be added to a recipe and taking up a lot less space than uncooked spinach.

Andrea Chesman is the author of many cookbooks, including The Pickled PantryRecipes from the Root CellarPickles and RelishesMom’s Best One-Dish Suppers, and The Vegetarian Grill, which was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Book Award and won a National Barbecue Association Award of Excellence. She is a coauthor of 250 Treasured Country Desserts and The Classic Zucchini Cookbook, and her articles have appeared in the New York TimesCooking LightFood & WineVegetarian TimesOrganic GardeningFine Cooking, and other publications.

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