Super Duper Spinach
Updated: Apr 1, 2021
When my children were tiny, I told them that sleep was delicious, and that spinach was super duper. They believed me, and in some small measure that fact has positively influenced the course of their lives. To what or to whom I owe that early confidence, I do not know, but certainly I am grateful.
My love affair with spinach started several years ago, when I started cooking a much-loved, quick and easy spinach, lemon, and chicken pasta dish for my young family. Spinach showed up often, too often I thought at the time, in the box of fresh vegetables that arrived to our back door every week. I had signed up for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), to help a local organic gardener grow a very small home delivery business.
It took some patience and ingenuity to create dozens of ways to prepare the limited menu of organic produce, especially for children. This was over 20 years ago, at the height of conspicuous consumption, right before the crash. I was most definitely an outlier, struggling to prove to myself and to others that localized food security and self sufficiency were fundamental rights and aspirations. I am grateful for the struggle, and to spinach for its infinite patience and resilience. Spinach is indeed super duper.
Of all of the designated super foods, spinach is the easiest to grow, cook and preserve, even for fledgling and all-season gardeners.
As far as vegetables go, spinach is compact, lasts well in the refrigerator, is fun to eat raw or cooked, and is absolutely packed with much of the good stuff that children require for strong physical and mental development.
To my children, eating lettuce in salads was fine but boring, and it didn't lend itself to cooking or being served hot (grilled radicchio is lovely, but not exactly kid-friendly). Spinach however, was an instant favourite.
I love growing spinach as much as I love growing radicchio, which is another hardy leafy green. Leaf and head lettuce are lovely and I do grow them, but in my Pacific Northwest Garden, lettuce can become sodden and attractive to those naturally-occurring most expert cleaners of slimy decaying greens, slugs. Slugs have a critical role to play in nature, and are an important food source for birds and small animals, but I would simply prefer they play elsewhere. For that reason, I grow lettuce only in containers and in one slug-fortified raised bed, and I grow spinach freely elsewhere, according to season, sunlight, and temperature.
As far as leafy greens go, superstar spinach holds up well in the rain, sets is leaves slightly naturally just above soil level (keeping them relatively dry), and unlike lettuce, it doesn't (in my garden at least) turn bitter when going or gone to seed. Garden journals lump spinach in with the bitter-at-seed-stage warning for leaf vegetables, but I don't find that to be true. Then again, I love radicchio, rapini, and other bitter greens, so perhaps I don't notice.
Spinach has a crisp/spongy, slightly astringent sweetness that lends itself well to supporting flavours in cold, even warm salads, without wilting, and it absorbs flavours beautifully when cooked. I love the slight squeak the leaves seem to make when eaten. This is known officially as its 'tooth', and is caused by the naturally occurring oxalic acid in the leaves, which in the garden provides structure, and helps protect the plant from insect predators. How clever is that?
Currently in my garden I have three batches of spinach growing at different stages, and in different locations. I have been harvesting fall-sown spinach from my cold frame. I planted it later than optimal last September, so it grew slowly over the cold winter. Now however, it is growing quickly, and I am loving it.
I am starting spring spinach from seed under cover outside; a workhorse variety grown for volume and disease resistance, plus a dwarf variety for containers. I will soon plant a pseudo-spinach that I am hoping will thrive in hanging baskets as an edible green to replace traditional but unproductive ornamental greenery. I will share photos and stories of my spinach choices and progress, as I go. It is early yet in the season.
If you are new to gardening or at all unsure, I say to you that growing spinach is a must. Growing spinach, like growing radishes, will give you confidence and teach you to love gardening. Spinach loves cool weather, which makes it a natural for early spring and late summer/early fall sowing, and is one of few fulsome vegetables that thrive in partial shade. Spinach is resilient and won't wilt away and die should you forget to water it once, or not water it quite enough during a warm spell. Its rather thick felty leaves seem to retain and save water for a non-rainy day.
Spinach suits containers, window boxes, buckets, barrels, raised beds, laneways, boulevards, parkways, and most guerilla garden spaces. You can tuck spinach in flowers baskets as tasty greenery, you can use it as a shady ground cover/mulch beneath taller vegetables or ornamentals, and you can grow it pretty much all year, if you keep it from overheating, and also move it under cover of mulch inside a cold frame during the winter.
My 2021 spinach menu includes (so far, there may be more)
Komatsuna Spinach was fall-sown in containers, outdoors, and then moved to a cold frame in November. Sowing in containers first allow me to maximize cold frame real estate, by ensuring there are no empty spots left if seeds don't germinate in-ground. Komatsuna isn't a true spinach, rather it is a Brassica rapa like rapini and turnips. It is also known as 'mustard spinach', though it does not taste at all like mustard. I love this variety as I can just cut individual leaves as I need them, and they just keep growing back. This regenerating ability, known as 'cut and come again', is a great feature to look for when choosing vegetables to grow in limited space at home, as you are saving yourself the full 'days to harvest' time, which in this case would be 20-30 days to grow a new crop. If I were a market gardener, selling leaf greens at a farmers' market or to CSA customers, I would include this spinach as a mainstay. Like radishes, Komatsuna matures very quickly, so it is satisfying to grow in the spring. It does not bolt (go to seed prematurely) easily when the temperature increases suddenly, but I do have to ensure that I open the lid of the cold frame lid more often now as the days become warmer.
Seaside Spinach is on my transplanting list for this week. I grew it from seed in rows in a seed tray, but I got busy and missed the opportune time to 'prick out' the wee seedlings into individual cells or pots. Thankfully spinach is hardy, so I have full confidence the transplants will thrive regardless. Seaside is a true spinach, and a favourite of market gardeners. It is resistance to downy mildew, that same malady that can blight peas if they get too damp in the spring. Seaside matures in 20-25 days, produces great bunches of gorgeous dark green tender but sturdy leaves, transports and stores well, and is very delicious.
Spinach Little Hero is on my list this week as well. I am growing this variety from seed, for transplant, for my daughter's rooftop container garden, and for a friend's seaside container garden. This pretty, compact, ornamental variety takes up to 40 days to mature, but is worth the wait. It too can be harvested as a 'cut and come again' green, which makes it perfect for small spaces, and also for gifting. Who wouldn't love a thrift store colander planted with spinach?
New Zealand Spinach isn't spinach either in fact, it is just commonly known and sold as spinach. This flowering, climbing, warm weather annual is in the fig-marigold family but is grown in many parts of the world as a leafy vegetable. I will be planting seeds soon in seed modules, for eventual planting in hanging baskets. Vining basket greenery found in plant nurseries and garden centres typically consumes volumes of space, fertilizer (if using) and water, but offers little in return. My plan is to design, grow and gift edible hanging baskets, so fingers crossed that this new 'spinach' is a winner. If you don't have any shade at all in your outdoor space, or if your climate is unusually warm, maybe give this variety a try.
My advice for planting true spinach is to give it a bit of shade, or limited sun, right at the start, and to plant it in well-drained soil in beds, pots or containers. The seedlings will likely seem leggy and frail at first, but know that they are not. Rather, they are confident, tough little plants that will generally stand right back up even after a heavy rain or aggressive watering slams them down. You may lose a few here and there, but you needn't worry too much. Spinach is not lettuce, and you are intuitively a much better gardener that you know.
Pound for pound spinach packs a punch as a super food. Even though it contains mostly water (+90%), it delivers heaps of super-internal-plumbing-scrubbing insoluble fibre, and is loaded with essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Spinach is rich in zeaxanthin and lutein, both essential to eye health, and eating spinach regularly can lower/regulate blood pressure. Spinach consumption has been linked to reduced rates of prostate and other cancers, and heart disease. According to the online resource Healthline, 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of raw spinach boasts:
Protein: 2.9 grams
Carbs: 3.6 grams
Sugar: 0.4 grams
Fiber: 2.2 grams
Fat: 0.4 grams
Further, spinach contains:
Vitamin A. Spinach is high in carotenoids, which your body can turn into vitamin A.
Vitamin C. This vitamin is a powerful antioxidant that promotes skin health and immune function.
Vitamin K1. This vitamin is essential for blood clotting. Notably, one spinach leaf contains over half of your daily needs.
Folic acid. Also known as folate or vitamin B9, this compound is vital for pregnant women and essential for normal cellular function and tissue growth.
Iron. Spinach is an excellent source of this essential mineral. Iron helps create hemoglobin, which brings oxygen to your body’s tissues.
Calcium. This mineral is essential for bone health and a crucial signaling molecule for your nervous system, heart, and muscles.
Plus potassium, magnesium, and vitamins B6, B9, and E.
Lutein. This compound is linked to improved eye health.
Kaempferol. This antioxidant may decrease your risk of cancer and chronic diseases.
Nitrates. Spinach contains high amounts of nitrates, which may promote heart health.
Quercetin. This antioxidant may ward off infection and inflammation. Spinach is one of the richest dietary sources of quercetin.
Zeaxanthin. Like lutein, zeaxanthin can also improve eye health. Spinach is high in vitamin K, which serves several functions in your body but is best known for its role in blood clotting. As such, it could interfere with blood-thinning medication. People who are taking blood thinners, such as warfarin, should consult with their healthcare practitioner before eating large amounts of spinach. People who are prone to kidney stones may want to avoid spinach.
Today, my husband was a bit under the weather, so I went outside to our cold frame and harvested about five cups of fresh spinach leaves to make him a beautiful, delicious and nutritious superfood, super-healing lunch in just a few minutes. I made a simple, warm Asian-inspired version of creamed spinach with garlic and spicy peanut butter, plus a quadruple super food* dessert smoothie made with *cherries, *spinach, *ginger, *honey, vanilla, apple, and almond milk. I had pitted and frozen the cherries during the summer, and I found the remaining basic ingredients in our pantry staples.
Both recipes turned out very well and according to my husband, were super delicious. Who lies about spinach smoothies? If you are inclined to try these recipes, they are listed below. In the interim,
Ways to enjoy spinach, either homegrown or fresh from the market:
Fresh, right out of the garden. Wash and dry spinach, and use as you would lettuce, in cold salads.
Fresh, right out of the garden as above, but in a gorgeous warm salad that uses 50/50 warm bacon fat and warm olive oil in traditional vinaigrette into which one tablespoon of grainy mustard had been stirred. Coarse grate two hardboiled eggs over the spinach before tossing with the warm vinaigrette. Finish with freshly ground pepper and sea salt. So good.
Freeze washed and dried leaves right after picking, in freezer bags or vacuum bags (remove as much air as possible before freezing). Cook frozen spinach before consuming, just in case any pathogens exist.
Blanch, dry and freeze spinach immediately after harvesting. Thaw and use in soups, creamed spinach, spinach pasta, etc.
Steam leaves only briefly in just a few drops of water in a saute pan, before drizzling with olive oil or melted butter, and some sea salt. Here would could add some white wine, lemon juice, or even heavy cream, or just serve the beautifully sauteed spinach more or less naked.
Mash spinach alone or into boiled potatoes, and finish as above.
Make hummus. Whiz together in a small food processor or blender - equal parts spinach leaves and any cooked peas or beans (chickpeas, cannellini, black beans, kidney beans, borlotti beans, romano beans), together with one or two cloves of fresh garlic, a pinch of sea salt, two tablespoons or so of olive oil, the juice of one-quarter lemon, and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Drizzle with best quality olive oil to finish.
Make pesto or any other popular green sauce like chimichurri, chermoula, salsa verde, or zhoug, by replacing all or part of a traditional green with spinach. I've done this switch-out exercise several times with many different greens in many different traditional recipes, and the results are always delightful. Have fun with it!
Two Spinach-Inspired Heart Smarter Recipes
Roasted Garlic Creamed Spinach (heart healthier version of the original heavy cream recipe). Serves one as a lunch main, or two as a dinner side.
- 4 cups spinach, long stems removed
- 3/4 cup unsweetened almond milk (or oat, coconut, cashew milk)
- 1/4 teaspoon ground roast garlic (garlic powder works, but use just a 'scant' 1/8 teaspoon)
- 2 tablespoons good quality olive oil
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon spicy peanut butter (optional)
- dried sumac or lemon zest, and freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
Fill a large pot with salted water and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, stir the almond milk together with the garlic, over medium high heat until it is reduced by half or so, to 1/2 cup in volume. Remove from heat and set aside.
When the water comes to a boil, blanch the spinach leaves for just one minute, then remove them with a strainer or slotted spoon, and plunge them into ice water or cold water to set the bright green colour. Drain the leaves and gently squeeze out the water. (Let the superfood water cool and use it to water your plants)
Saute the blanched and squeezed leaves in the olive oil, in a saute pan set over medium high heat. Stir gently to cook evenly for 4-5 minutes, until tender and heated though. Add the reduced almond milk and stir to distribute for just a minute, until bubbling. If using the spicy peanut butter you would add it at this point also.
Remove from heat and mound in serving bowl. Season with sea salt and pepper, freshly-ground nutmeg and sumac if using. Serve immediately.
Quadruple Super Food Cherry and Spinach Smoothie Serves one as a meal, or two as a dessert
- 1.5 cups frozen pitted cherries
- 1 cup fresh spinach leaves, large stems removed
- 1/2 half sweet apple, peeled and cored
- 1/2 of a thumb-sized knob of fresh ginger
- 2 level tablespoons of creamed or regular honey (or to taste)
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (or to taste)
- unsweetened almond milk (or oat, coconut, cashew milk)
- lemon balm, mint, basil or other herb of choice to garnish (optional)
Method Add all ingredients to a two-cup (500ml) blender or processing container. Fill the empty space to desired level with almond (or other) milk. Blend to desired consistency. Pour into a serving glass or glasses, and garnish if desired.
I close with the happy ending to the story of the small organic grower who delivered spinach to my home so long ago. That business grew and grew, and is today worth millions. The business directly and indirectly employees thousands of people, and supports hundreds of small, local organic and transitioning farmers. Early adopters of the CSAs and the city farmgate have grown up and into the region's slow food and organic food movement. My children have grown into strong, spinach-loving adults, and yes they still believe that sleep is delicious.
If you are unable to grow spinach yourself, support someone who does. Spinach is affordable to buy fresh by the bunch, at chain, big box, and specialty grocers alike, during most of the year. For less than you would pay for an empty calorie, entirely unhealthy snack, you could buy a bunch or two of super duper food.
So that's it for this week, my passionate spinach speech. I hope I have convinced you to try growing spinach and to love it, or try it again in new and different ways.
To learn about urban permaculture and permaculture principles, watch Modern Farmer Magazine's Urban Permaculture video series in which publisher Frank Giustra and I introduce the basics.
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