At a certain point in many people’s lives, something magical occurs. Your blind, blinkered, unreasoned, gut-churning hatred of spinach — you’ve never even tasted it, but you just KNOW you loathe it — is transformed, like Cinderella’s pumpkin, into a thing of joy and beauty. That might be overstating things, but you get the point.
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Perhaps the widespread childhood revulsion to spinach is due to the brutal treatment so much spinach has suffered at the hands of careless cooks over the years. A slimy mound of battle-dress greens on a plate is never going to tempt youthful taste buds, especially when promoted with the dreaded tagline: “And, it’s GOOD for you.” Yeah, right.
But once you get hooked on a pile of buttery, emerald-green leaves, there’s no turning back. Soon you become a full-fledged spinach eater, even to the point of loving it raw, when the crisp leaves have a fresh flavor and a pleasantly astringent aftertaste. When cooked, it reduces astonishingly quickly to a tiny, glossy puddle.
Thousands of recipes exist for spinach. Chameleon-like, it can be eaten raw with nuts, cheese, oranges, fennel and the like, but also appears in tarts, curries, soups, pasta, dumplings, omelets and more egg dishes than you can count. Dairy products moderate any residual sharpness, so spinach melds beautifully with butter and cream and never fails as an accompaniment to fish dishes.
And now, a little secret about spinach: Although spinach is an excellent source of vitamin A and folic acid, according to Tom Stobart, author of The Cook’s Encyclopaedia, the iron it contains is canceled out by the oxalic acid content, which means we cannot absorb the minerals effectively before they are excreted. So according to the contrary laws of childhood, if parents in future tell their children spinach is really not that good for them, a lot more may be eaten!
Luscious Lemon Chicken and Spinach Curry
The words “healthy eating” are normally as welcome as rain at Wimbledon, but unlike the curry-house norm, this is surprisingly light. Plus, it’s quick, easy to make and looks, well, good enough to eat. Serve with naan or basmati rice.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 40 minutes
Total time: 55 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
2 tablespoons light vegetable oil, divided
4 to 5 cups boneless, skinless chicken thighs, diced (Thighs provide more flavor than breast meat.)
1 large onion, finely sliced
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
A piece of fresh ginger the length of your thumb, peeled and finely chopped
1 to 2 fresh red chilies, finely chopped
1 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon turmeric
8 cardamom pods
Juice of 2 large lemons
2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
5 cups fresh spinach, tough stalks removed (Chop the leaves roughly if very large.)
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Heat at 1 tablespoon oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add the chicken pieces and fry over a high heat until golden brown on all sides. Cook in several batches, so you don’t overcrowd the pan. Transfer to a plate.
2. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil to the pan and fry the onion gently for 10 minutes until soft. Add the garlic, ginger, chilies, cumin, coriander, turmeric and cardamom and fry, stirring, for a couple of minutes.
3. Return the chicken to the pan with the lemon juice and stock. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes.
4. Stir in the spinach and allow to wilt for a few minutes before checking the seasoning and adding salt and pepper to taste. Warn the diners about the cardamom pods — they are best removed delicately from the mouth as if they were lemon pips.
Something for Everyone Spinach and Bacon Salad
I think the croutons are the best bit, but thanks to the spinach this easy-peasy salad contains all the major food groups.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Total time: 15 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
For the salad:
4 cups young spinach leaves
3 slices bacon, cut into squares
1 cup crumbled blue cheese
A handful of fresh mushrooms, thinly sliced
A handful of fresh chives, snipped
For the croutons:
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons oil
1 garlic clove, crushed
2 thick slices of white bread, cubed
1. Tear up the spinach leaves and place in a salad bowl.
2. Fry the bacon squares until crisp. Drain on kitchen paper.
3. Heat the butter and oil in a frying pan, add the garlic and fry until the aroma rises. Add the bread cubes and fry, stirring frequently, until they are crisp and golden. Drain on kitchen paper.
4. Add the bacon, cheese, mushrooms and chives to the spinach and dress with vinaigrette, then top with croutons.
Beautiful Baltic Summer Soup
This cold soup is authentically made with green beetroot tops, but spinach might be easier to source. The soup also contains sour cream, a favorite ingredient. In my world, everything tastes better with sour cream.
Prep time: 3 to 4 hours, which includes chilling time but not the cooking time for the beetroot or spinach
Cooking time: 10 to 15 minutes
Total time: 3 to 4 hours
Yield: 6 servings
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
Salt and white pepper to taste
1 cup cooked cubed beetroot
8 cups trimmed spinach leaves, cooked and chopped
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup sour cream
2 cucumbers, peeled and chopped
6 green onions, chopped
6 radishes, thinly sliced
Chopped fresh dill to taste
3 cups boiled, peeled shrimp
1. Simmer the stock for 10 minutes, adding salt and white pepper to taste. Remove from the heat and add the spinach and beetroot. Chill until very cold, about 3 or 4 hours.
2. Just before serving in chilled bowls, stir in the lemon juice and sour cream and add the cucumbers, green onions, radishes, dill and shrimp. Either mix well before serving or allow everyone to add the choice of garnish themselves.
Main photo: Fresh spinach. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman