YANKEE PIER: The green on spinach
In the middle of the summer, it’s only natural to gravitate toward fresher, lighter foods; our bodies in warm weather are not inclined to be bogged down by a hefty scoop of something rich like mashed potatoes, but not everyone wants to eat salad all the time, either. Spinach is a healthy median, particularly for its availability, versatility and affordability.
Originally from Persia (modern-day Iran), Spinach was originally known as aspanakh, making its way to India by way of Arab traders, then into China in the 7th century, as a gift from the King of Nepal, where it was and still is regarded as “the Persian green or vegetable.” It did not take long to diffuse into Europe, by way of ingenious cultivation techniques from the Persians, allowing the Muslims to introduce it to Spain in the 11th century, where the great Arab agronomist Ibn al-'Awwam gave it another nickname, the "captain of leafy greens." It gained popularity quickly because of its early seasonal appearance where there were few other vegetable options and when Lent was practiced and discouraged consumption of other foods.
In the next few centuries, spinach became quite the gourmet item, utilized in Turkish, French and Italian cooking in many different ways; in soups, served with meat and yogurt sauce, incorporated in fish and rice dishes, and combined with cheese. In the 16th century, it became a pronounced favorite of Catherine de Medici, a noblewoman from Italy and the queen of France at that time, to the point of her insistence of it being served at every meal. Since then, dishes served on a bed of spinach are often called “Florentine” or “ala Florentine,” reflecting her birthplace in Florence.
It did not reach North America till the 19th century, where it was successfully cultivated but perhaps did not reach its popularity potential until 1929, when the cartoon, “Popeye, the Sailor Man” debuted, where the main character attributed his strength to the power of spinach. Today, more than half of the American population associate spinach with “Popeye.”
And although the cartoon is highly exaggerated, there is truth to the power of spinach, health-wise. It is considered a superfood, dense with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants (including vitamin K, C, E, B6, iron, potassium and calcium) with the added benefit of low calories. It is also excellent for cleansing, purifying and restoring balance to the intestines. As alternative medicine, it is also beneficial for those with arterial hypertension and irritated skin (topically).
Because of its overall versatility, it can be difficult to decide how to prepare spinach. There are three basic types, all good for different things. There is the savoy, with dark green, crinkly and curly leaves, sold in fresh bunches at most supermarkets and excellent raw in salads or sandwiches or sautéed (Bloomsdale is a popular heirloom variety). Then there is the flat or smooth leaf spinach, with broad, smooth leaves much easier to clean and great in soups, pestos or purees. And lastly there is the semi-savoy, not as curly but still dark green, technically the hybrid variety, easier to clean than the savoy but great to use in either capacity, raw or cooked. However you decide to prepare spinach, make sure it’s fresh because it loses its health benefits after just a couple of days.
Some classic combinations:
- Olive oil
- Feta, goat, parmesan and ricotta cheeses
Eat fresh, eat local, always!