Mighty spinach, the go-to green

Popeye was right. Spinach is mighty tasty and good for you, too. And in the world of super-food greens, this old favorite still has plenty to offer both in flavor and nutrition.

The famous cartoon sailor man has been munching spinach since 1929 as his secret to bulging muscles. He was onto a good thing. Recent research shows that nitrates in spinach actually are energy boosters and help muscles perform more efficiently.

Many of us are part Popeye, especially in the West and Northeast where spinach consumption tends to be highest. According to the USDA, spinach has particular appeal in Asian households and for women over 40.

But it’s also trending up with millennials — as drink fodder. With its mild flavor, low calories and high protein content, spinach has become a favorite ingredient in fresh juices and smoothies.

It wasn’t always that way. After spiking in popularity (with Popeye’s help) during the 1940s, fresh market spinach all but disappeared during the early 1970s. Spinach only occasionally was consumed; it was mostly frozen and usually creamed.

Then, fresh spinach salads became restaurant darlings and America’s appetite for this leafy green grew. From 1970 to 2005, spinach consumption increased 12-fold, according to USDA statistics. On average, we eat more than 2.2 pounds a year.

Thanks to all those salads, the U.S. ranks as the world’s No. 2 spinach-growing nation, behind China. But it’s a distant second; the U.S. accounts for 3 percent of the world’s crop compared to 85 percent in China.

Interest in healthy eating and global cuisines also have bolstered spinach’s popularity. Nutrient dense, spinach offers a wide range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, particularly iron and vitamin A.

A staple of the Mediterranean diet, spinach can be found in cuisines around the world, thanks to early trade routes. Believed native to what’s now Iran and Turkey, spinach has been cultivated for at least 2,000 years. Arab traders introduced spinach to India and other parts of Asia. By 700 A.D., spinach was common in Chinese kitchens and nicknamed the “Persian green.”

Colonists brought spinach with them to the New World. Prickly-seeded spinach was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, his Virginia home two centuries ago. Current first lady Michelle Obama included that spinach variety in the White House’s vegetable garden.

Today, Americans like their spinach fresh and crunchy. About three-quarters of all American spinach is eaten fresh, thanks in part to the popularity of triple-washed, pre-packaged cello bags of baby leaves.

As with many crops, California is the spinach state, producing about three-quarters of the U.S. crop. About half of that spinach comes from Monterey County and mild coastal valleys, where spinach can be grown year-round. The San Joaquin Valley also is a major spinach source, with its main harvest in late winter and early spring.

Spinach varieties come in three basic types: savoy; smooth- or flat-leaved; and semi-savoy (hybrid crosses between the first two). Savoy varieties such as Bloomsdale and Merlo Nero have crinkly, dark leaves that can be a challenge to wash. Smooth-leaved varieties are much easier to clean, which is why they are so popular commercially. Semi-savoy varieties have a slight crinkle, but fewer challenges to washing than true savoy types.

California growers focus on the smooth or flat-leaved varieties almost exclusively. Those spade-shaped leaves are harvest ed young (as “baby spinach”) or slightly older (called “teenage spinach” by producers). “Freezer spinach,” headed for cold processing, has the largest leaves.

As for Popeye, why did that comic character’s creators get their sailor man hooked on the green stuff? Blame it on a typo — or not.

According to Samuel Arbesman’s “The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date,” an 1870s scientist noted that cooked spinach contained 35 milligrams of iron per half-cup serving. (It should have been closer to 3.5 milligrams.) That incorrect measurement stuck with spinach for many years.

But it was the vegetable’s high vitamin A content, not iron, that attracted cartoonist E.C. Segar to spinach, according to his biographers. Regardless, Popeye’s love of spinach significantly boosted sales.

While we now prefer it fresh instead of canned, spinach still can give muscles some pop. And our taste buds like it, too.

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WARM SPINACH SALAD

Serves 4

This comfort-food salad’s bold dressing has big umami flavor and meaty texture, thanks to mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes, plus a heady smokiness from Spanish smoked paprika. Together they match the taste experience that bacon typically provides, but in a much more healthful way.

Recipe from nutritionist and cookbook author Ellie Krieger.

4 medium sun-dried tomatoes, not oil-packed (1/2 ounce)

1/2 cup boiling water

8 ounces baby spinach leaves (about 8 cups lightly packed)

1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced into half-moons

3 tablespoons olive oil

8 ounces mixed mushrooms, cleaned, stemmed and sliced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika (pimenton)

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more as needed

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Place the sun-dried tomatoes in a medium bowl. Pour the boiling water over them, then allow them to soak and rehydrate for 15 minutes. Drain and reserve the soaking liquid, then thinly slice the sun-dried tomatoes.

Toss the spinach and red onion together in a large bowl. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the mushrooms and stir to coat; cook for about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until their moisture has evaporated and they are well browned. Stir in the rehydrated sun-dried tomatoes, the garlic and smoked paprika; cook for 1 minute. Reduce the heat to low, then stir in the reserved sun-dried tomato soaking liquid, the vinegar, salt and pepper and the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil.

Pour the warm mushroom mixture over the spinach and onion in the bowl; toss well until the spinach is well coated and slightly wilted. Taste, and add salt as needed. Serve right away.

Per serving: 140 calories, 4 g protein, 8 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, (2 g saturated), 0 mg cholesterol, 220 mg sodium, 3 g fiber, 3 g sugar

SPINACH-FETA BITES

Makes about 2 dozen

If you like, make these little appetizers a day in advance and simply warm for 10 minutes in a hot (400-degree) oven. Recipe from Ellise Pierce, who writes the Cowgirl Chef blog.

24 ounces frozen spinach, thawed

1/2 cup feta cheese

1/3 cup ricotta

1 tablespoon fresh dill, chopped, plus more for garnish

1 tablespoon fresh mint, chopped

1 egg

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Pinch of cayenne

1/3 cup breadcrumbs

Salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoons olive oil

Lemon wedges for serving

Squeeze out all of the water from the spinach (a potato ricer works nicely), roughly chop, and put into a large bowl.

Mix in the rest of the ingredients, except the olive oil and lemon wedges, and taste for seasonings.

To cook, heat the olive oil on medium high in a very large skillet. When it’s hot (when you can easily swirl the oil so it covers the entire bottom of the skillet), scoop the spinach mixture using a tablespoon or soup spoon and drop into skillet, pressing down (so it’s a bit like a tiny pancake). Repeat with as many as will fit in the skillet.

Let cook for 2 to 4 minutes, or until the bottoms are brown and they can easily be flipped to the other side. Cook for another 2 minutes or so on the other side. You may need to do this in batches. Serve warm with lemon wedges on the side and fresh dill on top.

Per bite: 47 calories, 3 g fat, 3 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 13 mg cholesterol, 75 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 56 percent of calories from fat.

STUFFED FLAT IRON PINWHEELS

Serves 4

The flat-iron-shaped cut of meat used here is also sometimes called top blade steak because it comes off that section of chuck (shoulder). You’ll need kitchen twine or water-soaked bamboo skewers to secure the stuffed steak.

Serve with greens and grilled corn.

Adapted from “The Primal Low-Carb Kitchen: Comfort Food Recipes for the Carb-Conscious Cook,” by Kyndra Holley (Page Street Publishing).

One 1 1/2-pound boneless flat iron steak (see note above)

Sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 cup packed fresh spinach leaves

1 cup sun-dried tomatoes (oil- or vacuum-packed)

3/4 cup crumbled feta cheese

3 cloves garlic

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.

Place the steak on a large cutting board. Use a very sharp, flexible knife to make a shallow cut at the center, with the grain (lengthwise), then make shallow cuts as you pull away one side of meat, then the other, to form a butterflied steak. Place a piece of plastic wrap over it; use a meat mallet to flatten the steak to a thickness of about 1/2 inch.

Season liberally with the salt and pepper on both sides. Arrange the spinach on top of the steak in an even layer. Cut the sun-dried tomatoes into halves or quarters (if needed), then scatter them evenly over the spinach.

Scatter the feta over the sun-dried tomatoes. Cut the garlic into very thin slices, then scatter those over the feta. Roll the steak as tightly as possible, taking care not to lose the filling. Tie at several intervals with the kitchen twine, or secure with the skewers.

Place on a rimmed baking sheet or broiler pan; transfer to the oven and cook for about 9 minutes or until the internal temperature of the meat (taken at the center) registers 160 degrees (medium).

Let the meat rest for 5 to 10 minutes before cutting it into slices. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Per serving: 360 calories, 41 g protein, 10 g carbohydrates, 19 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 140 mg cholesterol, 500 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar

SPINACH BACON DEVILED EGGS

Makes 24

A tasty twist on a favorite. Recipe from Debbie Moose.

12 hard-cooked eggs, peeled, cut in half, and yolks mashed in a bowl

4 ounces fresh baby spinach leaves, roughly chopped, or 4 ounces frozen chopped spinach, thawed, drained and squeezed dry

1/4 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup real bacon bits

2 1/2 tablespoons cider vinegar

2 tablespoons butter, softened

1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons black pepper

1/4 teaspoon salt

If using fresh spinach, place chopped leaves in a colander and pour a few cups of hot water over them just to wilt. Squeeze dry.

Combine the thoroughly mashed yolks with the other ingredients and mix well. Fill the whites evenly with the mixture, and serve.

SPINACH AND MUSHROOM TORTE

Serves 10-12

Easier than a quiche — no crust to bother with — this dish can easily be prepared a day in advance for a gathering or buffet. Reheat uncovered in a 350-degree oven.

Recipe adapted from Stephanie Witt Sedgwick.

1 tablespoon mild olive oil

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1/2 cup finely diced onion

12 ounces white mushrooms, cleaned, stemmed and thinly sliced

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

8 large eggs, beaten

1 1/2 cups low-fat milk (2 percent)

1 cup part-skim ricotta cheese

1/4 cup flour

Freshly grated nutmeg

One 16-ounce bag frozen spinach, defrosted, or 20 ounces fresh spinach leaves, washed, dried and chopped

6 ounces crumbled feta cheese (1 1/2 cups)

1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Have a 9-by-13-inch baking dish at hand. (Spray lightly with cooking spray if desired.)

Heat the oil and butter in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion; cook for about 3 minutes, until it just starts to soften. Stir in the mushrooms, then season with salt and pepper to taste; cook, stirring and flipping the mushrooms every couple of minutes, for 8 to 10 minutes, until they begin to brown and the moisture they release has evaporated. Transfer to a large plate to cool for a few minutes.

Whisk together the eggs, milk and ricotta; while whisking, sprinkle in the flour. Season with the nutmeg and with salt and pepper to taste.

If using frozen spinach, squeeze as much moisture as possible out of it. Then stir the defrosted or fresh spinach into the ricotta mixture, making sure the spinach is distributed evenly. Add the cooked mushrooms along with the feta and Parmesan, stirring until well incorporated.

Pour the mixture into the baking dish. Place on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 35 to 45 minutes, until the torte is firm and just starting to brown around the edges. If it puffs up, don’t worry; it will deflate as it cools.

Cool for at least 15 minutes before serving. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Per serving (based on 12): 200 calories; 12 g fat (6 g saturated); 170 mg cholesterol; 360 mg sodium; 9 g carbohydrates; 2 g fiber; 2 g sugar; 14 g protein.

SPINACH AND PORTUGUESE WHITE BEAN SOUP

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Makes 8-9 cups

Recipe from the Detroit Free Press.

1 cup chopped onions

2 garlic cloves, minced or pressed

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium red or yellow bell pepper

1 bay leaf

Pinch of salt

1/2 teaspoon ground fennel

1 medium peeled potato

2 tablespoons dry sherry

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

8 ounces fresh or frozen chopped leaf spinach

2 cups low-sodium vegetable stock

1 can (15.5 ounces) no-salt-added cannellini beans, undrained

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Chopped fresh parsley for garnish

In soup pot, sauté the onions and garlic in the olive oil, stirring often, for about 5 minutes or until the onions soften. While the onions sauté, chop the bell pepper.

Add the bay leaf, salt, fennel and bell pepper to the pot, and continue to cook for about 5 minutes, stirring regularly. Cube the potato and add to the pot along with the sherry, lemon juice, greens and stock. Cover and simmer for 20-25 minutes until the potatoes and greens are tender.

Stir in the beans and gently reheat. Add black pepper to taste and garnish with parsley.

Per serving: 127 calories (25 percent from fat), 4 g fat (1 g saturated), 22 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein, 122 mg sodium, 0 mg cholesterol, 5 g fiber.

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SPINACH 101: POWERHOUSE OF NUTRITION WITH ANCIENT ROOTS

Nutrition: Spinach is a “super food,” packed with nutrition but ultra low in calories. One cup of fresh leaves contains only 7 calories, but 181 percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin K and 56 percent of recommended dietary allowance for vitamin A. Spinach also is a good source for dietary fiber, vitamins C, E and B6, thiamin, riboflavin, folate, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper and manganese.

One cup of cooked spinach contains 41 calories with most of those calories coming from its high protein content.

Selection: Spinach is usually sold in bunches or bags of prewashed leaves. Choose bunches with crisp, fresh-looking green leaves with no signs of insect damage. Leaves should appear vibrant and tender, not dull or bruised. Avoid bunches that look yellowed (including stems), limp or slimy — all signs of age and decay. If buying bagged spinach, avoid yellowed leaves or bags with accumulated moisture.

Storage: Do not wash spinach before storage; exposure to water can speed decay. Loosely wrap bunches in paper towels, then place inside a plastic bag. Wrap the bag around the bunches, squeezing out as much air as possible. Then, store in the refrigerator’s crisper drawer. Spinach will retain its freshness for three to five days.

Preparation: Wash leaves just before using or cooking. (That includes prewashed bagged spinach.) Crinkly varieties such as savoy spinach tend to collect dirt; use a bowl of water to submerge the leaves and remove that grit between the wrinkles.

Spinach cooks very quickly. It needs only 1 to 2 minutes to stir fry, steam or sauté. Spinach shrinks considerably, too; 1 pound fresh spinach yields only 1 cup cooked.

Freeze for later: To keep its bright green color, spinach should be blanched before freezing. Plunge washed leaves into boiling water for 1 minute, then drain. Plunge leaves again into cold water to stop the cooking process, drain and transfer to freezer bags or containers. Freeze and use within six months. Frozen spinach retains its high nutritional content.

Florentine footnote: Although native to Asia Minor, spinach is closely associated with Italy. Catherine de Medici, the Italian-born wife of France’s King Henry II, gets credit for popularizing spinach dishes as “Florentine.” According to food lore, the queen brought chefs from her native Florence to France in the 1500s to cook spinach the way she liked it.

— Debbie Arrington

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