For many people, spinach is inextricably
linked with Popeye, the cartoon character who used to eat huge amounts
of spinach. It is a wonderfully versatile vegetable, popular worldwide,
with nearly every cuisine featuring spinach somewhere in its repertoire.
The Italians are particularly partial to spinach and have hundreds of
dishes using the vegetable. The words a la florentine mean the dish
As well as being delicious on its own,
chopped or pureed spinach can be mixed with a range of other ingredients
with superb results. It has a particular affinity with dairy products
and in the Middle East, feta or helim cheese is used to make boreks or
other spinach pies. The Italians mix spinach with ricotta or Parmesan
cheese for a huge range of recipes, and the English use eggs and
sometimes Cheddar for a spinach souffle.
History : Spinach was first cultivated in
Persia several thousands of years ago. It came to Europe via the Arab
world; the Moors introduced it to Spain, and Arabs in the Middle East
took it to Greece. It first appeared in England in the fourteenth
century, probably via Spain. It is mentioned in the first known English
cookery book, where it is referred to as spynoches; which echoes
the Spanish word for spinach which is espinacas. It quickly
became a popular vegetable, probably because it is quick and easy to
grow and similarly easy and quick to cook.
Nutrition : Spinach is an excellent source
of vitamin C if eaten raw, as well as vitamins A and B, calcium,
potassium and iron. Spinach was originally thought to provide far more
iron than it actually does, but the iron is "bound" up by oxalic acid in
cooked spinach, which prevents the body absorbing anything but the
smallest amounts. Even so, it is still an extremely healthy vegetable
whether eaten cooked or raw.
Buying and Storing : Spinach grows all year
round, so you should have no difficulty in buying it fresh. Frozen
spinach is a poor substitute, mainly because it has so little flavor, so
it is worth the effort to use the fresh product. Spinach leaves should
be green and lively; if they look tired and the stalks are floppy, shop
round until you find something in better condition. Spinach reduces
significantly when cooked; about 450g will serve two people. Store it in
the salad drawer of the fridge, where it will keep for 1-2 days.
Preparing : Wash well in a bowl of cold
water and remove any tough or large stalks.
Cooking : Throw the leaves into a large pan
with just the water that clings to the leaves and place over a low heat
with a sprinkling of salt. Cover the pan so the spinach steams in its
own liquid and shake the pan occasionally to prevent the spinach
sticking to the bottom. It cooks in 4-6 minutes, wilting down to about
an eighth of its former volume. Drain and press out the remaining liquid
with the back of a spoon.
Spinach can be used in a variety of ways. It
can be chopped and served with lots of butter, or similarly served with
other spring vegetables such as baby carrots or young broad beans. For
frittatas, chop the spinach finely, stir in a little Parmesan cheese, a
good sprinkling of salt and pepper and a dash of cream, if liked, and
stir into the omelet before cooking. Alternatively, puree it for sauces
or blend it for soups. Spinach is also delicious raw, served with
chopped bacon or croutons. A fresh spinach salad is delicious as the
leaves have just the right balance of flavor - sharp but not