Cooking spinach by the handful
By Ari LeVaux
Spinach, the meatiest of vegetables, is finally in season. The fleshy leaves of spring spinach are juicy with a potent green serum that’s high in iron and exceptionally rich in chlorophyll, which is a close chemical relative to hemoglobin, the red stuff in blood.
This time of year, spinach is so abundant that one can cook with it by the handful. Spring spinach comes in waves, the first of which was planted last summer as a fall crop, and coaxed through the winter under a blanket of snow. In spring, the overwintered spinach rages to life, with juicy leaves that are as sweet as they are lusty.
These leaves grew from roots that were well-established last fall, as opposed to the second wave of spinach, planted months ago in greenhouses. It’s about the same size as the overwintered spinach, but lacks the experience and terroir of the elder plants, which have had more time to accumulate nutrients.
Young spinach, including the so-called baby spinach that’s all the rage, is very convenient. It barely needs washing or any form of prep, and is as tender as veal. It may not have the sweetness of an overwintered spinach, but neither does it have the bitterness.
In terms of nutrition, baby greens are “basically water,” explained a farmer friend of mine, who prefers to be nameless due to the fact that his farm supplies about half of the salad mix in town.
“They aren’t as good for you as a plant that’s lived through the winter.”
He let me raid his field of overwintered spinach. The leaves were like plump, strong teenagers, in the prime of youth and vitality. Many of the stems were a vibrant shade of pinkish red, betraying their relatedness to chard, not to mention sugar beets. This is the stuff. Green gold.
The final wave of springtime spinach hits right before the solstice, when the field spinach gets big and leafy. It won’t be as sweet as overwintered spinach, but it will be just as meaty. In August it will be time again to plant for fall and, hopefully, a spring crop. My friend’s spinach, which overwintered so beautifully, was the Tyee variety.
Assuming you have the good stuff, then, what to do?
If you can get the good stuff, the overwintered green crème, then I’d recommend a very simple pesto with nothing more than spinach, olive oil and salt. This is a spectacular way to enjoy the subtle complexity of an overwintered spinach, like a vegetal blood transfusion in your mouth.
The leaves of springtime spinach clean easily. A blemish or two on a leaf can be tolerated in pesto, the sausage of plant foods.
If your spinach is good but not quite top level, a more typical pesto with nuts, cheese, garlic and zest will be a very satisfying way to enjoy the season. I’ve also had great results by simply combining fresh spinach pesto au natural with year-old basil pesto from the freezer.
The next recipe comes by way of friends in Bhutan, a little Buddhist country in the Himalayas where chile is king and cheese is queen, and all other foods are cooked in a combination thereof.
Those big bags of dried Mexican chiles that can be purchased in many box stores have become a lifeline to the Bhutanese diaspora. And to a lesser extent so have the bags of pre-grated “Mexican cheese blend.” I went to my local store and got little ounce-sized bags of dried Anaheim, New Mexico and ancho chiles. The store also had organic Mexican cheese blend.
The iron in spinach, while abundant, isn’t always accessible to the consumer. Cooking spinach with foods that are high in vitamin C helps make that iron more accessible. And chile pepper, it turns out, is high in vitamin C.
Bhutanese-style spinach with chile and cheese
1 to 3 ounces of dried red chile
4 handfuls of spinach
½ to 1 cup Mexican cheese blend (or ¼ – ½ cup feta)
Salt (unless using feta)
Water or stock