Gardening Articles: Health :: Cooking
by Ellen Ogden
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.