Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Spinach: The basics

Spinach is one of those lovely vegetables that is inexpensive, ubiquitous, really really good for you, and extremely versatile!  Shall we break it down just a bit and give that huge-looking half-pound bag you just bought some ideas that make it suddenly not very much after all?

What to look for: 

The darker, the better.  Especially within a bag or box or other group of spinach.  Those are going to be the youngest, most nutritious leaves.  If you are finding lots of yellow-green leaves, chances are the leaves were some of the older ones on the plant or that bag of spinach may have been on the shelf for a while.  Frankly, it won't taste very good.

Crispy and crunchy.  The way to test?  No, don't squish or pouf or otherwise abuse the bag of spinach.  After that the only thing I can say is that it WAS crisp.

The best way to test is to take a look at a couple of the leaves.  Are they soft and floppy or stiff and holding their shape on their own?  Sometimes, allowing the spinach to sit and soak in a cool water bath for a while might perk the leaves back up.  A great way to salvage that wilty bag of spinach you have already bought or perhaps accidentally left out on the counter. (I won't tell.  Just be sure to wash it again before you use it!)

What about varieties?

There are numerous different varieties but at least as far as my palate is concerned, I can't taste the difference.  We change up our varieties depending on the season.  Since spinach is a green, it typically does best in cooler weather.  There are several varieties available that are supposed to be hot-weather varieties, at least as far as spinach is concerned and in the late spring and summer we'll switch to one of those varieties so that we can provide spinach for as much of the growing season as possible.

How about nutrition?

Here's what the USDA Nutrition Facts say for raw spinach:
  1. Nutrition Facts
    Amount Per 1 cup (30 g)
    Calories 7
  2. % Daily Value*
    Total Fat 0.1 g0%
    Saturated fat 0 g0%
    Polyunsaturated fat 0 g
    Monounsaturated fat 0 g
    Cholesterol 0 mg0%
    Sodium 24 mg1%
    Potassium 167 mg4%
    Total Carbohydrate 1.1 g0%
    Dietary fiber 0.7 g2%
    Sugar 0.1 g
    Protein 0.9 g1%
    Vitamin A56%Vitamin C14%
    Vitamin D0%Vitamin B-65%
    Vitamin B-120%Magnesium6%
  3. So definitely not calories, if that's what you tend to count.  Spinach is however a fantastic source of Vitamins A and C, Iron and Potassium.  While Iron from vegetables may not be absorbed as well from vegetables as from animal sources, the approximately 0.81 miligrams of Iron found in 1 cup of raw spinach compared to the 0.73 miligrams of iron in 3 oz of braised pork loin chops is definitely something to be considered! (UDA National Nutrient Database: Searchable for thousands of different foods in various forms!)
  4. What do I do with it?

Spinach belongs in the category of food basics along with onions, potatoes, carrots and other veggies that are typically kept well stocked in your refrigerator or pantry.  The wonderful thing about spinach is that it can be grown nearly year round so if you can find yourself a sunny window or build some sort of coverable planter outdoors, it is certainly feasible to provide yourself with at least a little spinach for all but the hottest parts of the year. (And you'll be swamped with plenty of other veggies during that time anyhow!)

Back to what you actually DO with all this spinach...

Salad is a great option.  Smaller leaves you can wash and serve as-is while the larger leaves may need a quick chopping into more bite-sized sections.  Serve it as a spinach only salad with lots of other topping options (celery, tomatoes, onions, etc.) or mix it in with other lettuces and greens.

Spring, fall and summer spinach should all be tender enough to turn into salad.  In my experience, it is only during the winter months where spinach takes several weeks to grow new leaves beyond "baby" size when they might possibly become anything resembling "tough."  Even then, it seems that it can still pass for salad as it's rarely tough in the same sense that something like Kale tends to be no matter what.

Braising or wilting (depending on the term you learned) is a gateway to many different ways to add spinach to your meal.  When cooking up a potato, onion and egg scramble for breakfast, I often will add in several handfuls of spinach (whole or chopped depending on it's size) and wilt it down just before adding in my scrambled eggs.  Sautee some garlic in butter, perhaps some diced up sun-dried tomatoes too, and wilt your spinach once the garlic becomes fragrant to make a wonderful add-in for things like quiche, muffins, pretty much anything you might think of wanting to add in some veggies.  You can even drain off extra liquid from your sauteed garlic spinach, freeze it and then parse it out later into many different items.  

How to freeze: Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper, spread your drained spinach mixture across it, freeze.  Crumble into a Ziploc bag and toss it back into the freezer for later!

Check out our recipe for Parmesan Spinach Cakes or add it to just about ANY type of smoothie for a nutritional boost that doesn't change the flavor all that much.  (great way to sneak it into food for munchkins if you've got a picky eater!)

In total, you can add it to just about anything in addition to finding many different recipes in internet-land that feature the wonderful green.  When cooked, it shrinks in volume so dramatically that you can use very little and hardly notice it or use a great deal every week without breaking the bank.  In our house, especially when we have a lot of spinach that doesn't sell (like last weekend...) we eat a ton of spinach.  Spinach only salad for the 6 of us (4 grownups and two and a half munchkins) easily consume nearly a pound at once.  Adding it to eggs in a pancake and eggs type of breakfast can easily soak up a half pound or more without breaking a sweat.

So go ahead, challenge yourself to consume twice as much spinach this week!

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