Green Giant: There’s a lot to love about spinach


I love spinach. I love it raw, cooked, chopped, or whole. I love it alone and or in combination with other foods. Indeed, spinach is the one food I constantly crave.

That was not always the case. My generation grew up on canned spinach. Although Popeye the Sailor Man might have been eager to inhale a can of that slimy goop for the strength he needed to protect his beloved Olive Oyl from evil Bluto, the promise of muscles for the rest of us was not enough to overcome the bitter taste and awful texture of canned spinach.


While canned spinach may have been the vegetable we grew up hating, fresh spinach is a vegetable that is easy to like and easy to use. Fresh spinach is available year-round in grocery stores. And, with the renewed interest in locally grown vegetables, area farmers offer “just picked” spinach at local markets from now through the fall.

The virtues of spinach have earned it a place in the category Tsuper food.s It is low in calories, packed with vitamins, and rich in calcium, iron, and potassium. It is a great source of fiber and protein. You can maximize the nutritional benefits by eating the freshest spinach raw, or by briefly blanching, sautéing, or steaming it. You can store raw spinach in your refrigerator for up to 3 days without any loss in nutrients.

Spinach is part of the goosefoot family, which includes beets and chard. It is available in flat-leaf and crinkle-leaf varieties. It grows best in fertile, sandy soil. That’s why sand and grit often coat the fresh leaves. To clean, pinch off the stems and swish the leaves in a few changes of cold water before using. Just be sure to transfer the spinach from the pot to a colander with a slotted spoon versus turning out the entire pot to drain. This way the sand and grit will be left at the bottom of the pot rather than on top of your spinach.

Spinach shrinks by 90 percent when cooked. Thus a pound of spinach seems like a lot, but it’s not. Here’s a tip: if a recipe calls for chopped spinach, blanch it first, and then drain and squeeze it dry. Suddenly that ungainly mass of raw spinach has become a tidy little mound that’s easy to chop.

Spinach is versatile. It makes a great salad alone or in combination with other greens. Lightly tossed with a mild vinaigrette, spinach can serve as the base for a lovely grilled fish, chicken, or meat dish. Allspice, basil, cardamom, coriander, mace, and nutmeg pair well with spinach. Fresh ginger, garlic, sesame oil, and feta, goat, ricotta, or Parmesan cheeses compliment its flavor. Adding fresh fruits, such as oranges, mangoes, pears, and apples, helps to balance out spinach’s slightly tart flavor.

And best of all, there are many spinach recipes that kids adore. I promise. For example, my recipe for Spinach Balls is a sure winner with kids of all ages. Their popularity is best evidenced in a recent email chain from a group of my son Josh’s former high school buddies, now out of college and living around the country. The group includes Michael Golde, Andrew Skor, Larry Gast, Stew Kuhlo and Robert Kordenbrock. Though the St. Louis Cardinals are the usual topic of the email chain, they veered off into a discussion of the Spinach Balls that I had served at Josh’s graduation party. I blushed to read Andrew Skor’s description of them as “the Albert Pujols of recipes (aka, the best ever).” They all wanted the recipe, which is set forth below.

More proof of the appeal of these Spinach Balls came last week in a cooking class I taught to a group of fourth graders from the inner city who are enrolled in an after-school program called PREP, which is part of Discovering Options. Using the recipe below, the children and I prepared and baked the Spinach Balls. I watched with amazement as nine fourth graders enthusiastically devoured more than seventy Spinach Balls in under three minutes.

Unlike the other recipes below, the Spinach Balls can be made with frozen spinach, which can be a good alternative. Federal regulations require that spinach be exposed to quick, intense heat to just wilt the leaves before being flash frozen. The modern freezing process preserves more of the vitamins, flavor, and color. And it can remain frozen for up to eight months without any loss in quality.

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of two. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is currently working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected].


The Famous Spinach Balls with Mustard Dipping Sauce

2, 10-ounce packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed to remove moisture

2 cups herb-stuffing mix, crushed

5 ounces fresh Parmesan, finely grated

1 stick unsalted butter, melted

5 green onions, trimmed and finely minced

3 eggs, lightly beaten

Mustard Dipping Sauce *

Combine spinach, stuffing mix, Parmesan cheese, butter, onions, and eggs into a medium-sized bowl. Mix gently to combine.

Line a baking pan with parchment paper. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Roll spinach mixture into 1-inch balls and place onto prepared pan.

Place pan in preheated oven and bake for 10-15 minutes, or until lightly browned.

Place spinach balls on a platter and serve with mustard dipping sauce.


*Mustard Dipping Sauce

1/2 cup dry mustard

1/2 cup white vinegar

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1 large egg yolk

In a small bowl, whisk together mustard and vinegar. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let mixture sit at room temperature for 3-4 hours.

Whisk together sugar and egg yolk in a small saucepan. Add mustard mixture and stir over low heat until slightly thickened. Cover and place in refrigerator until needed. Allow sauce to reach room temperature before serving.

Makes 60-70 spinach balls.


Spinach Pesto Pitas

1 cup fresh spinach, stems removed and washed

1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs

1/4 cup water

1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and cooled (chopped if not using a food processor.)

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1/4 cup olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 1/2- 2 cups shredded Gruyere or Swiss cheese

2 whole-wheat pita breads

Place fresh spinach in a pot of boiling water for 30 seconds, drain, rinse in cold water, and drain again. Squeeze excess moisture out of spinach. Finely chop.

Place bread crumbs in a cup with 1/4 cup water. Turn breadcrumbs out onto a towel and squeeze out excess water.

Combine spinach, breadcrumbs, walnuts and garlic into a food processor container. Process spinach mixture until just combined. With machine running, add olive oil. (If mixing by hand, place all ingredients, except olive oil, into a deep bowl. Stir to thoroughly combine. Slowly add olive oil while stirring.) Season mixture with salt and pepper to taste.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Spread a thin layer of pesto onto pita breads. Sprinkle cheese over pesto sauce and place pizzas into preheated oven. Bake 10-12 minutes, or until cheese is melted.

Note: The same recipe can be made with pizza dough. The spinach pesto can also be tossed with warm pasta or drizzled atop grilled, baked, or poached chicken breasts and fish. Leftover pesto can be stored in a sealed container in your refrigerator for up to 1 week.


Spinach-Garlic Dip

1 slice of bakery bread cut 1/2-inch thick

1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 lb. fresh baby spinach, washed and spun dry

2 tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 garlic clove, crushed

Salt and pepper to taste

Place bread on a plate and pour 2 tbsp. olive oil over bread. Let mixture rest for 5 minutes.

In the bowl of a food processor, chop spinach. Add soaked bread, lemon juice, crushed garlic, and salt and pepper. Process to combine. With processor on, add remaining 1/4 cup olive oil through chute and process until pureed.

Place dip into a bowl and serve with thin slices of a crusty baguette.


Spinach Salad with Mango Vinaigrette

1 medium mango (or papaya), peeled and seeded, plus additional for garnishing

1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped

1/4 cup white wine vinegar

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4-1/2 cup olive oil

Salt and fresh ground black pepper, to taste

1 pound fresh spinach, stems removed, or baby spinach leaves

8 ounces feta cheese, crumbled

Puree mango (or papaya) and garlic together in a blender or food processor. Add sugar, salt and pepper, and vinegar and mix until combined. Gradually add enough olive oil until mixture is pourable.

Rinse spinach to remove any sand and grit. Spin dry in a salad spinner or wrap in a cotton kitchen towel and shake outdoors until moisture is gone.

Place spinach into a large serving bowl and toss with a few tablespoons of dressing. Add more dressing, as desired. (Leftover dressing can be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.) Sprinkle salad with feta cheese and top with additional fresh ground black pepper. Garnish with sliced mango or papaya.

Makes 4-8 servings, depending on size of each serving.