Food Crops & Edibles

Popeye’s old Standby is a Winter Champ

Spinach has gone from being a perennial dislike for picky eaters to a must-have ingredient in everything from salads to omelets to pizzas. Its abundant vitamins and fiber along the ease of growing spinach put it square at the top of a long list of beloved vegetables.

Spinach grows best in light, well-drained soil that is neither too acidic nor too basic. In fact, spinach will not grow in soil with a pH lower than 6.0. If you are growing spinach in containers, this is quite easy to remedy.  A caveat about container growing spinach is the fact that spinach’s fast growth requires adequate fertilization and Nitrogen helps spinach grow rich, green, healthy leaves. Containers and greenhouses offer an advantage in growing spinach because leaves are kept more easily from animal pests seeking a tasty snack. Regardless of where spinach is grown, care must be taken to ensure that the leaves and plants have ample air circulation and to ensure that the leaves stay relatively dry. Downy mildew and fusarium wilt are the price a gardener pays for poor air circulation.

One can harvest an entire head/rosette, or spinach can be treated as a cut and come again plant. Cut and come allows the gardener to harvest the small, tender leaves before they grow too large. Warm temperatures can cause some varieties of spinach to bolt or grow rapidly and set flowers. In the winter, this may not be a problem, but greenhouse conditions should be monitored carefully.

Spinach types are differentiated based on the shape of their leaves. There are several types, which can mainly be covered by describing Savoy and semi-Savoy varieties, as well as flat leaf types. Flat leaf spinach is the most popular for commercial application, since Savoyed (crinkled) leaf varieties catch rainwater and splattered soil if they are planted outdoors. This would obviously result in a less than appealing texture while eating; however, planting in containers or indoors can eliminate most of this problem. Additionally, soaking and rinsing crinkly Savoy types will remove any remaining soil from the leaves.

The patriotically named Spinach America is a heavily Savoyed variety with textured leaves that will provide character to any dish. It’s also a variety noted for being slow to bolt. Bloomsdale Long Standing is another Savoy type, with thick leaves that hold up well to cooking and canning. Giant Winter and Viroflay both have very large, smooth leaves. Erste Ernte is quick to mature, and while sensitive to bolt, maintains a good flavor after having bolted. Bordeaux is a flat leaf spinach with lovely flavor; it’s named for the rich dark red stems that run most of the length of the leaves.

Proper washing of any fruit or vegetable is important, but spinach can require a little more time than most. Place the leaves in a basin, large bowl or a very clean sink and cover with cold water to the depth of an inch or two. As the leaves soak, they will release the fine dirt that can cling, which then sinks to the bottom of the container. A change of water or two may be required to clean spinach thoroughly, especially if it’s been spattered heavily by rain and mud. 

Spinach has a place in an untold number of dishes. On sandwiches raw, and either crisp in a salad, or slightly wilted by a hot dressing, it can provide substance to a light snack. A handful of leaves in the bottom of a soup bowl is a welcome addition to a chicken soup, or something more exotic like Italian wedding soup. Chopped, it thickens tomato sauces, enlivens quiche, along with a host of other dishes in which spinach is the main star, as opposed to a key player.

The following dish is one version of a popular Indian dish. It’s rich, comforting and satisfying enough to serve as a light dinner, with warm flatbreads like paratha, roti, or thick pita, of course.

Palak Paneer Style Spinach

2 large heads of spinach, or the equivalent in leaves, chopped roughly

7 to 14 ounces of paneer (an Indian cheese, similar cheeses are: feta, dry farmer cheese or queso fresco)

1 small to medium yellow onion, diced large

1 clove garlic

1/2 tsp ground ginger

1 tsp cumin

dash cinnamon

salt as needed

oil and butter

plain yogurt, for texture

Heat 1 tbs oil and 1 tbs butter in a saucepan (or any pan wider than it is deep) over moderate to high heat. Cut cheese into 1/2 inch to 1-inch cubes, and fry in the saucepan until the cubes develop a light brown exterior. Remove to a plate for later use. Add the onion to the saucepan and add oil or butter if necessary. Stir onion frequently, and let it turn clear, then start to caramelize. Add garlic, ginger, and cumin, stirring. Be careful not to burn these aromatics. Once the spices begin to release rich smells, add chopped spinach, stirring to wilt the spinach. Stir cheese cubes back in and add yogurt to desired texture. Warm until yogurt sauce is starting to bubble and add a dash of cinnamon and salt, if desired. Yields one family sized side dish or a couple’s dinner.

Amy Ambrosius is a writer and budding gardener living deep in the heart of Texas with her family.

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