In season: Egyptian spinach

The search for greens that will thrive in metro Atlanta’s summer heat and humidity might send a farmer to a seed catalog — or halfway across the globe.

Christopher Edwards, farmer at Mayflor Farms in Stockbridge, was introduced to a plant known by several common names, including Egyptian spinach, while visiting Ghana in West Africa.

Egyptian spinach, Corchorus olitorius, is widely grown across the Middle East, southeast Asia and North and West Africa. In Arabic, the plant is known as molokhiya. The nutrient-rich leaves are cooked into stews and soups, and the fibers from the stem are the source of jute, the plant fiber used to make burlap and rope.

Edwards brought home seed four years ago and has been keeping a small patch growing ever since. Last year, he began growing and harvesting enough to take to his booth at the Sunday morning Grant Park Farmers Market, and occasionally include it in the offerings for the farm’s community-supported agriculture boxes. He enjoys introducing his customers to what he refers to as “ancient foods.”

This year, he seeded his crop in late May, ending up with a little more than a dozen plants. “It’s a very heavy producer, so you don’t need a lot of plants. When I harvest, I just cut off the small stems. Every place you cut, the plant will produce two more branches, so the more you harvest, the bushier the plant becomes.”

Mayflor’s customers become intrigued when Edwards tells them the plant is full of nutrients. “It’s a lot more nutritious than kale,” he tells them, and they are willing to take home a half-pound bag. He recommends cooking it as it’s prepared in Ghana, sauteing it with onions and garlic and adding one or more fresh hot peppers. “Cook it with the hottest pepper you can find,” he advises.

The cooked leaves have a sticky texture, a lot like boiled okra. The dried leaves are used like sassafras as a thickener in stews and soups.

Edwards began bringing Egyptian spinach to the market in early August and should have it available until late October or first frost. The leaves are the edible part of the plant, so he recommends cutting them off the small branches as the first step in preparation for cooking. Since he’s not harvesting the plants for making rope and cloth, he chops up the branches and stems and adds them to his compost where he finds they do a great job of aerating the pile.

Stewed Egyptian Spinach

In West Africa, these greens would also be seasoned with red palm oil. This is not palm kernel oil, but oil pressed from the bright reddish-orange fruit of the oil palm. If you’d like, add a tablespoon of red palm oil when you add the greens and allow them to boil together. Red palm oil can be found at the DeKalb and Buford Highway farmers markets.

West African cooks use seafood bouillon cubes to season all types of greens, soups and stews. Shrimp and fish bouillon cubes can be found in stores specializing in Hispanic groceries and at the Buford Highway Farmers Market.

2 cups water

1 medium onion, cut in half and thinly sliced

1-3 hot peppers

1 seafood bouillon cube

1/2 pound Egyptian spinach

In a medium saucepan, combine water, onion, peppers and seafood cube. Bring to a boil.

While onion mixture is boiling, use kitchen shears to cut spinach leaves from stems. Discard stems. Pile leaves up and cut into thin slivers. Add to boiling water. Cook for 20 minutes. If you wish to make the greens hotter, smash the peppers after they have cooked. Otherwise, discard the peppers before serving. Makes: 1 1/2 cups

Per 1/4-cup serving: 18 calories (percent of calories from fat, 11), 1 gram protein, 3 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, trace fat (no saturated fat), trace cholesterol, 154 milligrams sodium.

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