by Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist
It’s great to see the sight of local spinach now in the produce section. Its vibrant deep green leaves are very enticing for a delicious salad as well as for other delectable dishes. Spinach is one of the first vegetables available in the spring and is a hardy one.
It can be planted early and can withstand a late snowstorm—it looks beautiful when I have seen it poking through the snow. Spinach originated in Southwest Asia (the areas around Iran, Persia, and Nepal) a couple thousand years ago and made its way slowly to Europe via the Moors and then to this country around the 1700s. Spinach was the vegetable the cartoon character Popeye ate to build strong muscles but unfortunately he ate it out of a can, which is a disgrace to the vegetable since it has virtually no similarity to the real leaf out of the garden. Spinach can be well accepted by everyone, no matter what age, as long as it is prepared the right way—just not out of a can!
Spinach has a whopping amount of nutrients to offer along with some other strength-building capabilities. There is some theory that the rich iron content popularized by Popeye was inaccurate (ten times higher than it actually is) due to a misplaced decimal point and that it was really richest in vitamin A. But spinach has more to offer than just vitamin A; it has vitamin K (one of the richest vegetables sources with the exception of kale), magnesium, manganese, folic acid, fiber, and potassium. It also contains more than a dozen different flavonoids/plant compounds that have been associated with many preventive functions, including anti-cancer properties. Two specific carotenoids found in spinach show great promise from preliminary research in reducing the incidence of prostate cancer. Spinach is associated with anti-inflammation, dementia prevention, and promotion of eye and bone health. Research indicates that vitamin K is just as important as calcium in maintaining strong bones and spinach sure has a lot of that to offer. Although neither calcium nor iron are not well absorbed from spinach due to its high oxalic acid content, which binds with the calcium and iron making them much less available. The rich nutrition profile that spinach has offsets this oxalic acid issue though. Cooking spinach very briefly does decrease the oxalic acid content while minimizing damage to the other nutrients it provides. In fact the nutrient density of cooked spinach is greater than raw spinach since it cooks down so much.
Choose spinach that has a rich dark color and buy organic whenever possible, and first and foremost of course, select local spinach since it's so sweet and tender. If local spinach is not available keep in mind that spinach is one of the “dirty dozen”—produce that has the most concentrated pesticide residues, according to research by the Environmental Working Group. Use spinach quickly after buying it since the folic acid levels decrease significantly within a few days. Wash spinach leaves well since dirt tends to accumulate in its crinkly leaves and there is nothing worse than chomping on some grit in a salad or cooked greens. Enjoy this robust vegetable when it is at its peak!! One of my favorite ways to serve spinach is the recipe below, which I received years ago from one of my teachers in graduate school. Other easy ways to use it are in salads, omelets, frittatas, quiche, soup, and lasagna, and it is delicious in a quick sauté with olive oil and garlic—just until the leaves wilt, which only takes a few minutes.