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The go-to green: Spinach useful far beyond salads

Spinach and Portuguese White Bean Soup (Jessica J. Trevino / Detroit Free Press)
Debbie Arrington Tribune News Service

Popeye was right. Spinach is mighty tasty and good for you, too. And in the world of super-food greens, this old favorite still has plenty to offer both in flavor and nutrition.

The famous cartoon sailor man has been munching spinach since 1929 as his secret to bulging muscles. He was onto a good thing. Recent research shows that nitrates in spinach actually are energy boosters and help muscles perform more efficiently.

Many of us are part Popeye, especially in the West and Northeast where spinach consumption tends to be highest. According to the USDA, spinach has particular appeal in Asian households and for women over 40.

But it’s also trending up with millennials – as drink fodder. With its mild flavor, low calories and high protein content, spinach has become a favorite ingredient in fresh juices and smoothies.

It wasn’t always that way. After spiking in popularity (with Popeye’s help) during the 1940s, fresh market spinach all but disappeared during the early 1970s. Spinach only occasionally was consumed; it was mostly frozen and usually creamed.

Then, fresh spinach salads became restaurant darlings and America’s appetite for this leafy green grew. From 1970 to 2005, spinach consumption increased 12-fold, according to USDA statistics. On average, we eat more than 2.2 pounds a year.

Interest in healthy eating and global cuisines also have bolstered spinach’s popularity. Nutrient dense, spinach offers a wide range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, particularly iron and vitamin A.

A staple of the Mediterranean diet, spinach can be found in cuisines around the world, thanks to early trade routes. Believed native to what’s now Iran and Turkey, spinach has been cultivated for at least 2,000 years. Arab traders introduced spinach to India and other parts of Asia. By 700 A.D., spinach was common in Chinese kitchens and nicknamed the “Persian green.”

Colonists brought spinach with them to the New World. Prickly-seeded spinach was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, his Virginia home two centuries ago. Current first lady Michelle Obama included that spinach variety in the White House’s vegetable garden.

Today, Americans like their spinach fresh and crunchy. About three-quarters of all American spinach is eaten fresh, thanks in part to the popularity of triple-washed, pre-packaged bags of baby leaves.

As with many crops, California is the spinach state, producing about three-quarters of the U.S. crop. About half of that spinach comes from Monterey County and mild coastal valleys, where spinach can be grown year-round. The San Joaquin Valley also is a major spinach source, with its main harvest in late winter and early spring.

Spinach varieties come in three basic types: savoy; smooth- or flat-leaved; and semi-savoy (hybrid crosses between the first two). Savoy varieties such as Bloomsdale and Merlo Nero have crinkly, dark leaves that can be a challenge to wash. Smooth-leaved varieties are much easier to clean, which is why they are so popular commercially. Semi-savoy varieties have a slight crinkle, but fewer challenges to washing than true savoy types.

California growers focus on the smooth or flat-leaved varieties almost exclusively. Those spade-shaped leaves are harvested young (as “baby spinach”) or slightly older (called “teenage spinach” by producers). “Freezer spinach,” headed for cold processing, has the largest leaves.

As for Popeye, why did that comic character’s creators get their sailor man hooked on the green stuff? Blame it on a typo – or not.

According to Samuel Arbesman’s “The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date,” an 1870s scientist noted that cooked spinach contained 35 milligrams of iron per half-cup serving. (It should have been closer to 3.5 milligrams.) That incorrect measurement stuck with spinach for many years.

But it was the vegetable’s high vitamin A content, not iron, that attracted cartoonist E.C. Segar to spinach, according to his biographers. Regardless, Popeye’s love of spinach significantly boosted sales.

While we now prefer it fresh instead of canned, spinach still can give muscles some pop. And our taste buds like it, too.

Spinach Bacon Deviled Eggs

From Debbie Moose

12 hard-cooked eggs, peeled, cut in half, and yolks mashed in a bowl

4 ounces fresh baby spinach leaves, roughly chopped, or 4 ounces frozen chopped spinach, thawed, drained and squeezed dry

1/4 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup real bacon bits

2 1/2 tablespoons cider vinegar

2 tablespoons butter, softened

1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons black pepper

1/4 teaspoon salt

If using fresh spinach, place chopped leaves in a colander and pour a few cups of hot water over them just to wilt. Squeeze dry.

Combine the thoroughly mashed yolks with the other ingredients and mix well. Fill the whites evenly with the mixture, and serve.

Yield: 24 halves

Spinach and Mushroom Torte

Recipe adapted from Stephanie Witt Sedgwick

1 tablespoon mild olive oil

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1/2 cup finely diced onion

12 ounces white mushrooms, cleaned, stemmed and thinly sliced

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

8 large eggs, beaten

1 1/2 cups low-fat milk (2 percent)

1 cup part-skim ricotta cheese

1/4 cup flour

Freshly grated nutmeg

One 16-ounce bag frozen spinach, defrosted, or 20 ounces fresh spinach leaves, washed, dried and chopped

6 ounces crumbled feta cheese (1 1/2 cups)

1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Have a 9-by-13-inch baking dish at hand. (Spray lightly with cooking spray if desired.)

Heat the oil and butter in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion; cook for about 3 minutes, until it just starts to soften. Stir in the mushrooms, then season with salt and pepper to taste; cook, stirring and flipping the mushrooms every couple of minutes, for 8 to 10 minutes, until they begin to brown and the moisture they release has evaporated. Transfer to a large plate to cool for a few minutes.

Whisk together the eggs, milk and ricotta; while whisking, sprinkle in the flour. Season with the nutmeg and with salt and pepper to taste.

If using frozen spinach, squeeze as much moisture as possible out of it. Then stir the defrosted or fresh spinach into the ricotta mixture, making sure the spinach is distributed evenly. Add the cooked mushrooms along with the feta and Parmesan, stirring until well incorporated.

Pour the mixture into the baking dish. Place on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 35 to 45 minutes, until the torte is firm and just starting to brown around the edges. If it puffs up, don’t worry; it will deflate as it cools.

Cool for at least 15 minutes before serving. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Yield: 10-12 servings

Spinach and Portuguese White Bean Soup

Recipe from the Detroit Free Press

1 cup chopped onions

2 garlic cloves, minced or pressed

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium red or yellow bell pepper

1 bay leaf

Pinch of salt

1/2 teaspoon ground fennel

1 medium peeled potato

2 tablespoons dry sherry

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

8 ounces fresh or frozen chopped leaf spinach

2 cups low-sodium vegetable stock

1 can (15.5 ounces) no-salt-added cannellini beans, undrained

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Chopped fresh parsley for garnish

In soup pot, saute the onions and garlic in the olive oil, stirring often, for about 5 minutes or until the onions soften. While the onions saute, chop the bell pepper.

Add the bay leaf, salt, fennel and bell pepper to the pot, and continue to cook for about 5 minutes, stirring regularly. Cube the potato and add to the pot along with the sherry, lemon juice, greens and stock. Cover and simmer for 20-25 minutes until the potatoes and greens are tender.

Stir in the beans and gently reheat. Add black pepper to taste and garnish with parsley.

Yield: 8-9 cups

Warm Spinach Salad

From nutritionist and cookbook author Ellie Krieger

4 medium sun-dried tomatoes, not oil-packed ( 1/2 ounce)

1/2 cup boiling water

8 ounces baby spinach leaves (about 8 cups lightly packed)

1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced into half-moons

3 tablespoons olive oil

8 ounces mixed mushrooms, cleaned, stemmed and sliced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika (pimenton)

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more as needed

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Place the sun-dried tomatoes in a medium bowl. Pour the boiling water over them, then allow them to soak and rehydrate for 15 minutes. Drain and reserve the soaking liquid, then thinly slice the sun-dried tomatoes.

Toss the spinach and red onion together in a large bowl. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the mushrooms and stir to coat; cook for about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until their moisture has evaporated and they are well browned. Stir in the rehydrated sun-dried tomatoes, the garlic and smoked paprika; cook for 1 minute. Reduce the heat to low, then stir in the reserved sun-dried tomato soaking liquid, the vinegar, salt and pepper and the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil.

Pour the warm mushroom mixture over the spinach and onion in the bowl; toss well until the spinach is well coated and slightly wilted. Taste, and add salt as needed. Serve right away.

Yield: 4 servings