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Spinach: The Prince of Vegetables

posted on: Feb 15, 2022

Spinach: The Prince of Vegetables

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

“Come on! Eat your spinach!  Don’t you want to grow up and be as strong as Popeye?”  How many times have mothers, in such words, urged their long-suffering offspring to consume this vegetable made famous by that comic strip hero?

More often than not, children have to be forced to eat this healthy green – usually, to the young ones, very unpalatable due to the method of preparation.  If mothers only knew that, besides being a bodybuilding food, spinach can be cooked in a mouthwatering fashion, the children’s traditional dislike of this leafy eatable would vanish. In the lands where it has been on the daily menu for centuries, a dish made with this vegetable as favored by both old and young.

Spinach is believed to be native to Persia and from there spread to both the East and West. In the mist of history, it came to China and, in that land where has been utilized as a food from at least the 7th century BC, it has been known as the ‘Persian Herb’ . However, for some unknown reason, it was never cultivated in the Greek and Roman worlds. Europe had to wait until the 11th century AD to become familiar with this green. 

The Arabs who were enamoured with its taste and healthful qualities introduced a comma along with a whole series of fruits and vegetables, into the Iberian Peninsula. Calling it ‘the Prince of Vegetables’ they rapturized in verse and stories about its countless attributes. 

From Spain its cultivation spread to the remainder of Europe. Almost all the European languages derived their names for spinach from the Spanish espinaca which originated from the Arabic isbanakh. During the Middle Ages it was known as ‘the Spanish Vegetable’ and became much sought after as a Lenten food. 

Spinach came to the Americas in colonial times, but it was only in the 19th century that it became a common food.  Today, California produces half of the spinach consumed in the U.S.A.

No doubt, because of Popeye it is widely available and can be found in the remotest villages of North America. Even though it is not relished by everyone, and a few find it unpalatable, it is used in the culinary arts more than any other of all the leaf vegetables and is the most important cooked green. 

There are a number of varieties of spinach.  However, the spinacia oleracea or garden spinach is the most common.  An annual potherb of the goosefoot family, it is a dark green plant with broad, fleshy and crinkley leaves.

To thrive, the seeds must be planted in fertile well-drained soil, and, during the growing season, cool weather is needed to produce the healthy plant. When, in about 45 days, the leaves are close to 8 inches long and the plant is nearly 10 inches across, it is ready for harvesting. If allowed to mature it will seed and, hence, become useless as a vegetable. 

The low-lying leaves, which are the edible part, collect a good deal of sand and therefore, need very thorough cleansing before cooking. To ensure that all soil is removed, the leaves should be washed in lukewarm water at least three times, lifting them out of the water each time.  A little salt will help to draw the sand to the bottom. 

Although a number of culinary experts for vague reasons have tried to debunk its healthful qualities, spinach is definitely good for the body. An excellent blood builder, it is without question, about as wholesome and health giving a food as can be imagined. It contains over 90% water, has no cholesterol and is a rich source of minerals and vitamins. Large amounts of calcium, iron, phosphorus, potassium and vitamins A, B and C; and some carbohydrates, fat, magnesium, sodium, and high-quality proteins are contained in this nourishing green. One ounce of spinach will supply half the average person’s requirements of vitamins A and C. 

It is low in calories, containing in its raw form around 14 calories per cup. Even more important, it has a significant amount of chlorophyll, a substance which may protect against cancer. Tests in laboratories have proven that the chlorophyll in spinach lowers the activity of cancer-causing agents. 

On the other hand, some of its health attributes are cancelled by the large amount of oxalic acid which tends to block the absorption of most of the calcium and iron. Also, this acid may combine with the calcium and iron of other foods eaten at the same time and neutralize their benefits. Hence, spinach is not recommended for the elderly, infants, and pregnant women. Nevertheless, for everyone else, it is a nourishing vegetable. 

When prepared correctly, spinach is an excellent green with a toothsome distinct flavour.  The best way to eat this delightful leafy plant is raw or steamed in its own juice.  It also goes well with other foods, especially cheese, eggs, and yogurt.

If covered, the leaves cook without water in about 5 minutes. When other foods are added, the cover can be left off for the second phase of the cooking. Aluminum utensils should not be employed since their use usually results in discoloration of the leaves.

Spinach is retailed fresh, canned, or frozen. If purchased fresh, after washing, it can be stored in plastic bags in the refrigerator or frozen for future use. All the fresh nutrients are retained if it is frozen after being scalded in hot water for two minutes.

Should a cook become familiar with preparing spinach in a succulent manner, a great number of savory dishes will be added to his/her menu.  These few will give an idea of what can be concocted with this ‘Prince of Vegetables’.

Spinach with Onions

Spinach: The Prince of Vegetables

Serves 4

4 tablespoons olive oil

4 medium onions, chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 package spinach (10 oz. 284 g.), thoroughly washed and chopped

1 teaspoon oregano

1/2 teaspoon ginger

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons lemon juice 

  1. In a frying pan, heat the oil, then sauté the onions and garlic over medium heat for 12 minutes or until the onions turn golden brown.
  2. Stir in the spinach, oregano, ginger, salt and pepper and cover, then cook for five minutes, stirring a few times. 
  3. Stir in the lemon juice and serve.

Cheese and Spinach Salad

Spinach: The Prince of Vegetables

Serves 6 to 8

1 package spinach (10 oz. 284 g.), thoroughly washed and finely chopped

2 medium tomatoes, cut into 1/2 -inch cubes

1/2 cup pieces of feta cheese

1/4 cup pitted and quartered black olives

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

1 clove garlic, crushed

4 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon ground fennel

1/4 teaspoon pepper 

  1. Place all the ingredients in a salad bowl, then thoroughly mix and serve immediately. 

Spinach and Yogurt Salad

Spinach: The Prince of Vegetables

Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium onions, chopped

1/2 small hot pepper, finely chopped

1 package spinach (10 oz. 284 g.), thoroughly washed and chopped

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon powdered mint leaves

2 1/2 cups yogurt

  1. In a frying pan, heat the oil and sauté the onions and hot pepper over medium heat for 12 minutes, then stir in the spinach, salt and pepper and cover.
  2. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring a few times, then transfer to a salad bowl and allow to cool.
  3. Stir in the garlic, mint and yogurt and serve. 

Spinach and Yogurt Soup

Spinach: The Prince of Vegetables

Serves 6 to 8

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium onions, chopped

1/2 small hot pepper, finely chopped

1 package spinach (10 oz. 284 g.), thoroughly washed and chopped

1/4 cup course burghul or rice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

5 cups water

2 cloves garlic, crushed

5 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

3 cups yogurt 

  1. In a saucepan, heat the oil and sauté the onions and hot pepper over medium heat for 10 minutes, then stir in the spinach and cover.
  2. Cook for five minutes, then add the burghul or rice, salt, pepper, and water and bring to a boil.
  3. Cook over medium heat for 20 minutes, then remove from the heat and stir in the remaining ingredients and heat but do not bring to a boil.
  4. Remove immediately and serve hot. 

Scrambled Eggs with Spinach

Spinach: The Prince of Vegetables

Serves 4 to 6

4 tablespoons butter

2 medium onions, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 small hot pepper, finely chopped 

1 package spinach (10 oz. 284 g.), thoroughly washed and finely chopped 

1/2 cup pieces of feta cheese

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon cumin

6 eggs 

  1. In a frying pan, melt the butter and sauté the onions, garlic and hot pepper over medium heat for 12 minutes or until the onions turn golden brown, then stir in the spinach and cover.
  2. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring a few times, then stir in the cheese, pepper and cumin and stir-fry for a further 2 minutes.
  3. Break the eggs on top and scramble with the spinach, then stir-fry for a few moments until the eggs are done. 

Salmon and Spinach Casserole

Spinach: The Prince of Vegetables

Serves 4 to 6

1 package spinach (10 oz. 284 g.), thoroughly washed and chopped

1 can salmon (7 3/4 oz. 220 g.)

1/2 cup find breadcrumbs

2 medium onions, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, crushed

4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

1 small hot pepper, finely chopped

4 tablespoons tomato paste, dissolved in 1 cup of water

4 eggs, beaten

4 tablespoons butter or margarine,

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1/4 teaspoon cumin 

  1. Bring a pot of water to a boil, then drop in the spinach and cook over high heat for 3 minutes.
  2. Drain by pressing out all the water through a strainer, then mix with the remaining ingredients and place in a greased casserole.
  3. Bake in a 350o F preheated oven for 1 1/4 hours, then serve hot or cold. 

Vegetarian Spinach Delight

Serves 4 to 6

2 packages spinach (10 oz. 284 g. each), thoroughly washed and chopped

4 tablespoons olive oil

4 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon ginger

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 clove garlic, crushed

2 hard boiled eggs, chopped

  1. Bring a pot of water to a boil, then drop in the spinach and cook over high heat for 3 minutes.
  2. Drain by pressing out all the water through a strainer, then set aside.
  3. Mix all the remaining ingredients except the eggs, then stir in the spinach.
  4. Place on a serving platter, then spread the egg pieces evenly over the top and serve.

Cheese and Spinach Pies

Makes 18 pies

1-pound frozen dough, thawed, or equivalent amount of hand-made dough

1 package spinach (10 oz. 284 g.), thoroughly washed and finely chopped

1 cup pieces of feta cheese

2 medium onions, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

4 tablespoons olive oil

4 tablespoons lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

  1. Cut the dough into 18 pieces and roll into balls, then cover with a damp cloth and allow to rest for an hour.
  2. In the meantime, mix all the remaining ingredients to make a filling, then set aside.
  3. Roll out the dough into 5-inch to 6-inch rounds, then divide the filling into 18 equal portions.
  4. Prepare one pie at a time by placing a portion of the filling on the round, then pinching close into a triangle form.  Continue until all the pies are made.
  5. Bake in a 350o F preheated oven for 25 minutes or until the tops of the pies turn golden brown, then remove and brush the tops with olive oil and serve hot or cold.

Note: In all the recipes, if desire, the hot peppers may be left out; cooking oil substituted for olive oil; and fresh coriander replaced by a mixture of half parsley and half green onions.