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Exploring Spinach: Folklore, Facts, and How to Cook This Superfood

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Spinach has a long and interesting history.

Spinach has a long and interesting history.

I don't like spinach, and I'm glad I don't, because if I liked it I'd eat it, and I just hate it.

— Clarence Darrow

The Beautiful Story of Spinach

Spinach first appeared in Persia—the Fertile Crescent—a place many of us regard as the birthplace of life. Tender shoots, sprouting, growing, flowering, fading, and then beginning once more. Searching for a cool respite, the plant migrated, encountering difficult climates and hostile conditions; it finally found peace in the valley. It found its home in Kathmandu.

Year-Round Nutrition

Valued for its flavor, crisp texture, and bright green color, the wild plant grew profusely, rewarding those who gathered it with a year-round supply. The people in the valley understood that if they allowed select, healthy plants to flower and disperse their seeds, new crops would return in the weeks and months that followed.

During the Tang Dynasty, the peaceful inhabitants of this idyllic valley were invaded by usurpers from the south, the Kingdom of Magadha. Chinese warriors joined forces with the valley people, helping them repel and defeat the invader. In thanks and devotion, delegates from the valley presented gifts to the Chinese emperor; among these were pickles (chutney), celery, and "boling."

Inscriptions from the era tell us that the name of this vegetable was derived from the name of the kingdom from which it originated.

“Originally from the ‘Kingdom of Poling,' the vegetable took on the name of the land.”

“Poling” means "slanted hill." You know that slanted hill as Mount Everest.

In This Article

  • Climate Needs of Spinach
  • Catherine de Medicis and Spinach
  • Why Do Some People Hate It?
  • How to Grow Spinach
  • Is It Really a Health Food?
  • Spinach Recipes

(Nipolo) sent envoys to give tribute of the boling, pickles, celery and ‘hunti’ onion.

— New Tang History, First Book of the Western Realm, Nipolo in AD 647

So, the Kingdom of the Slanted Hill, the country that introduced the beautiful green wild plant to China, was Nepal. And that green plant was Spinacia tetranda, spinach.

Climate Needs of Spinach

It flourished in Nepal, but Spinach cannot grow everywhere. It's a cool-weather crop, at its best when daytime temperatures don’t exceed 75 degrees F. (60 to 65 degrees is optimum). Evenly moist and sandy soil is best, encouraging rapid growth. When temperatures soar and daylight increases (as in the summer months), the plants will bolt (form flower stalks and go to seed).

As stated in the introduction, food historians believe that the very first spinach grew in Persia. From there, it moved east to Nepal. In the Middle Ages, those same peoples of Persia (present-day Iran) carried it to Sicily, where it adapted to the challenges of the Mediterranean climate, not by evolution but with ingenuity.

Arab agronomists employed sophisticated irrigation techniques and successfully introduced a variety of new crops to Sicily; among these were citrus fruits, cotton, dates, and spinach.

Catherine de Medicis and Spinach

By the Middle Ages, spinach was being grown throughout most of Europe but was unknown in France. That changed when a long-distance romance blossomed and grew into marriage.

Catherine de Medicis was the only child of Lorenzo de' Medici, Duke of Urbino, Italy, and Madeleine de la Tour d'Auvergne, the Countess of Boulogne. Her noble parentage placed her (of course) in line for a royal marriage. In 1533, at the age of 14, she married the Duc d'Orleans. (In 1547, he would be named Henry II, King of France.) It was her chef who introduced spinach to French gastronomes. Dishes served with a bed of spinach are labeled “a la Florentine” in her honor.

Why Do Some People Hate It?

I love spinach in every possible way—raw, steamed, and folded into just about any and every dish. (If I saw spinach gelato, I’d probably give it a try.) But some people simply cannot stand the taste, calling it disgusting and bitter. And there is a reason for this. They aren’t fussy. They are “super-tasters." Genetically, some of us are programmed to be highly sensitive to the compounds in foods that make them seem bitter. If you hate the taste of spinach, it is likely that you also detest black coffee, tea, cruciferous vegetables, and dark chocolate.

You are forgiven.

Many people disliked Spinach.

Many people disliked Spinach.

How to Grow Spinach

In the 20th century, new strains of spinach were developed that are hardier, taste better, and are less likely to bolt (go to seed before maturing). It's really an easy vegetable to grow, and it will grow quickly if you can give it these essentials:

  • Rich, well-drained soil
  • Plant about 4 to 6 weeks before the last frost in the spring
  • Grow 6 to 8 weeks before the first frost in the fall
  • Space plants 12 inches apart
  • Fertilize regularly with a continuous-release plant food
  • Temperatures between 35 and 75 degrees F.
  • No more than 14 hours of daylight

Spinach can be grown in a pot; choose a pot that is at least 6-8 inches deep. If grown in a pot, place it in a sunny location in the fall and partial shade in spring and summer.

Is It Really a Health Food?

Is spinach really a superfood, as Popeye led us to believe? Absolutely. Leafy greens like spinach provide more nutrients than any other food when compared calorie for calorie. We're talking about the super nutrients (vitamins K, A, C, B-2, and B6; magnesium; folate; manganese; iron; calcium, and potassium).

It’s a very good source of protein, phosphorus, vitamin E, zinc, dietary fiber, and copper. Plus, it’s a good source of selenium, niacin, and omega-3 fatty acids. Spinach is available year-round nearly all over the world. And it is usually very affordable.

Another wonderful thing about spinach is that it is extremely versatile. It can be eaten raw in a salad, blended into a smoothie, or cooked (just a little, please—you don't have to boil the daylights out of it!) and added to other dishes.

The iron contained in spinach is very important, especially for menstruating women, growing children, and teens. And it's a good source of energy—Popeye was right!

(Source: NutritionAndYou.com)

Spinach smoothie

Spinach smoothie

Nutrition Facts: 1 Cup of Spinach

from NutritionData.Self.com

Amount% Daily Value

Calories

6.9

Total Carbohydrate

1.1 g

Dietary Fiber

0.7 g

3%

Total Fat

0.1 g

Total Omega-3 fatty acids

41.4 mg

Total Omega-6 fatty acids

7.8 mg

Vitamin A

2813 IU

56%

Vitamin C

8.4 mg

14%

Vitamin E

0.6 mg

3%

Vitamin K

145 mcg

181%

Folate

58.2 mcg

15%

Calcium

29.7 mg

3%

Iron

0.8 mg

5%

Magnesium

23.7 mg

6%

Phosphorus

14.7 mg

1%

Zinc

0.2 mg

1%

Magnesium

0.3 mg

13%

Potassium

167 mg

4%

Spinach Recipes

Spinach can appear in every meal—there are hundreds if not thousands of recipes on the internet for breakfast scrambles, mid-morning smoothies, lunchtime salads and sandwiches, and dinner pasta dishes—all with spinach as an ingredient. But in many of these, the spinach is nothing more than an adornment, a trinket for those hoping to embellish their healthy regime with a bit of green.

I won't be repeating those here. The recipes that follow were chosen because spinach appears as more than a bit player. In each of these dishes, spinach is the central character, the star of the show.

  • Cheesy spinach balls (V)
  • Sweet spinach muffins (V)
  • Carb Diva's (that's ME!) spinach quiche (V)
  • Spinach pesto (V)
  • Popeye (spinach) burger
  • Carb Diva's creamy spinach soup (V)
  • Spinach and goat cheese Hasselback chicken
  • Indian spinach curry for kids (V)

(V) = vegetarian

Cheesy spinach balls

Cheesy spinach balls

Cheesy Spinach Balls

These spinach balls are a great make-ahead appetizer, and very adaptable. The blogger for SweetAsHoney provides suggestions for using fresh or frozen spinach, substituting various cheeses, and utilizing whatever herbs you have available. If you can overlook the typos it's a great recipe. By the way, this can be made with gluten-free panko breadcrumbs.

Sweet spinach muffins

Sweet spinach muffins

Sweet Spinach Muffins

These breakfast or snack muffins look extremely moist. The author of SuperHealthyKids says her little ones request them. I don't remember ever trying to get my children to eat green muffins, but a little ingenuity can overcome the fears of even the pickiest eater. Don't call them "spinach" muffins; how about "Incredible Hulk Muffins," "Green Goblins," "Monster Muffins," or "Frog Muffins"?

Or, bake them on St. Patrick's Day.

Carb Diva's spinach quiche

Carb Diva's spinach quiche

Carb Diva's Spinach Quiche

My spinach quiche is a vegetarian dish, but you can certainly add crisply cooked bacon, diced ham, or cooked crumbled Italian sausage for the carnivore in your life.

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 onion, minced
  • 1 10-oz pkg. frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
  • 1 9-inch unbaked pie crust
  • 1 tsp. all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup grated Cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup low-fat or non-fat cottage cheese
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg

Instructions

  1. Melt butter in a heavy medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and sauté until translucent, about 8 minutes. Add spinach and stir until spinach is dry about 3 minutes. Cool slightly.
  2. Preheat oven to 375°F. Sprinkle both kinds of cheese over the bottom of the unbaked pastry shell. Top with spinach mixture. Beat eggs, cottage cheese, salt, pepper, and nutmeg in a large bowl to blend. Pour over spinach. Bake until filling is set, about 50 minutes. Cool slightly. Cut into wedges and serve.
Spinach pesto

Spinach pesto

Spinach Pesto

This spinach pesto contains a touch of basil for herby brightness but is packed with 2 cups of fresh spinach. You can toss it with hot pasta, stir it into a soup, or even spread it on toast. It's a lovely green color and comes together in just minutes.

Popeye (spinach) burger

Popeye (spinach) burger

Popeye (Spinach) Burger

There are numerous "recipes" (yes, the use of quotation marks is appropriate) on the internet for spinach burgers. It is painfully obvious that all of them are based on the same original recipe, which lists as the main ingredient "one bag of frozen spinach."

Sloppy recipe writing such as that makes me absolutely CRAZY! What is one "bag" of spinach? Are you talking about the 10-ounce steamer, the 12-ounce package, or the 24-ounce family size from Walmart?

The lovely Emily at the blog OatAndSesame actually did it right. She has presented a well-written recipe for a spinach burger that tastes wonderful.

Carb Diva's creamy spinach soup

Carb Diva's creamy spinach soup

Carb Diva's Creamy Spinach Soup

I hate to brag, but gosh, isn't this pretty? This is a wonderful soup to serve for a luncheon, a festive springtime or summer brunch, or as part of a hearty winter evening meal.

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, minced
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/8 tsp. black pepper
  • 2 cups Yukon gold potatoes, diced
  • 4 cups vegetable broth
  • 6 cups fresh spinach
  • grated nutmeg, optional
  • 1/2 cup shredded Swiss cheese, optional
  • sour cream garnish, optional

Instructions

  1. Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, rosemary, salt, and pepper, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook, occasionally stirring, for 5 minutes.
  2. Stir in potatoes and cook, occasionally stirring, for 3 minutes. Pour in broth. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook until the potatoes are very soft, about 15 minutes.
  3. Stir in spinach and continue to simmer until the greens are tender, about 10 minutes more.
  4. Puree the soup with an immersion blender or regular blender (in batches), leaving it a little chunky if desired. (Use caution when pureeing hot liquids).
  5. Serve the soup garnished with nutmeg and cheese or a swirl of sour cream if desired.
Spinach and goat cheese Hasselback chicken

Spinach and goat cheese Hasselback chicken

Spinach and Goat Cheese Hasselback Chicken

Hasselback potatoes have been known in Sweden for centuries but just recently became a "trendy" food (I suspect that the invention of Instagram had something to do with it). Upscale eateries are making Hasselback everything—salmon, sweet potatoes, and even baked apples. And now there is Hasselback chicken breast. Actually, this is a recipe I have been happy to add to my repertoire. Any excuse to use goat cheese works for me!

Indian spinach curry for kids

Indian spinach curry for kids

Indian Spinach Curry for Kids

There are dozens and dozens of spinach curry recipes on the internet, but this one is unique in several ways. It contains easily-obtained ingredients, is kid-friendly (not too hot and spicy), and is well-written. Serve it with brown rice or flatbread.

© 2019 Linda Lum