The mild flavor of spinach makes it wonderfully adaptable to a range of uses in the kitchen (whether raw or cooked).
SEASON: Although available year-round, spring and fall are the peak seasons.
CHOOSING: Select leaves that are green and smell fresh, with no water-soaked, wilted, or yellowed patches.
STORING: Store spinach in a produce bag in the refrigerator for three to seven days.
GROWING: Spinach is a relatively quick crop, needing only five to six weeks from the time seeds are sown until harvest. Select a sunny bed and prepare the soil by working in plenty of compost.
The low-growing spinach lends itself to planting in a bed. (A 2- to 3-foot-wide row that can be worked from one side or the other is ideal.) Level the dirt with a rake, and scatter seeds thinly across the bed. Then rake again to cover the seeds. Water to settle seeds and soil into place. Seedlings will begin to appear in about a week. Thin as needed, and be sure to toss the leaves into your next salad.
Plant spinach seeds in the spring about a month before the last frost. For a fall garden, sow seeds one to two months before the first expected frost. The fall spinach will stop growing once the weather gets cold, but with a little protection from mulch, it will live and provide fresh greens in mild winters and the next spring.
Harvest spinach by pinching off the outer leaves, allowing the plant to remain in the garden to grow. Keeping a layer of mulch around plants will help keep soil from splashing onto the leaves when it rains.
HISTORY: This popular leafy green originated in the Middle East and was eventually brought to the United States by the Spaniards. Popeye the sailor is known for his love of the iron-rich, vitamin-packed food. The cartoon hero was credited with saving the spinach industry in the 1930s, so much so that Crystal City, TX―self-proclaimed spinach capital of the world―erected a statue in his honor.
APPEARANCE: You will find its dark green leaves to be either curled or smooth, depending on the variety. The New Zealand variety is smaller, with flat, fuzzy, spade-shaped leaves. Spinach tends to have a slightly bitter taste.
EATING: There is a variety of ways to enjoy this great vegetable. It can be served raw in a fresh, crisp salad or cooked (try boiling, sautéing, or blanching). For fullest flavor, cook only until it begins to turn limp. It also works well as an ingredient in casseroles, quiches, soups, and other concoctions. Dishes that use spinach as a main ingredient may be followed by the phrase a la florentine.
BENEFITS: Spinach is a rich source of vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, and potassium. However, its nutritional value is somewhat inhibited by the oxalic acid it contains, which may curtail the absorption of calcium and iron. While this does not affect calcium absorption from other foods cooked with spinach, you may want to get your calcium from additional sources. –Cindy Hatcher