Prince of Vegetables

Even skeptics will delight in these “Prince of Vegetables” dishes.

By Vicki Frank

In addition to reminding us to reverently honor our veterans, Memorial Day also kicks off the unofficial start of summer. At a time when we cannot WAIT to get outside and take our food with us, we’re more than ready to fire up the grill, ready to throw anything on it in lieu of heating up the house with the suddenly loathsome oven. That being said, you probably will be surprised that the topic I’ve chosen this week is NOT something that falls in that category. I won’t be writing about anything slathered in barbecue sauce or sporting characteristic grill marks. Instead, I’ll be extolling the joys and benefits of fresh-from-the-farm goodness in the form of something you may or may not serve alongside your pork chops, lamb kebabs or ribs. Memorial Day may be a fond memory this year, but eating well is very much in season.

Let’s face it – meat has no season. No typically discernable one, anyway. But produce? Now that’s another story. For local, farm-fresh, in season goodness, you’ll want to take full advantage of all the farmers’ markets have to offer. It may be unofficially summer, but the garden begs to differ. With the Hudson Valley growing season limited, we become in tuned with what’s best when. Farmers are still offering cool weather vegetables, such as peas, lettuce and asparagus. But there’s one more worth mentioning. It’s been called the Prince of Vegetables, a staple in Mediterranean cuisine, a medically-acclaimed nutrition miracle and, if we’re lucky, its growing season starts now and will have its run through most of the summer, with a resurgence in early fall when cool weather graces us again. Please don’t be disappointed when I tell you, after all this build-up, that it’s spinach. Its reputation may place it among some of the less popular vegetables, but hear me out. It is my fervent hope that, after reading this, even the most skeptical will at least be willing to give it a chance.

Spinach is often classified as a salad green, which is certainly true, but it is so much more. Caught somewhere between lettuce and earthier, spicier greens such as arugula, it’s almost deserving of a category all its own. It is incredibly versatile, lending itself to everything from dips and salad dressings to soups, omelettes, wraps and even pies as well as the rare distinction of being one of the things we could eat every day in some form without growing tired of it. In fact, with so many potential roles to play, you may not even recognize it half the time, making it fairly easy to slip into all sorts of dishes when you want to up your nutrition. You’ll see how easy it is to work it into meatloaf or burgers, toss it in with other greens in salads, even add it to macaroni and cheese. Especially if you have kids who are hesitant to eat their vegetables, or even a finicky adult who’s hard to please, you’ll want to explore the wonders of spinach. They’ll never know what hit them! Think I’m making too much of a little thing? Lets see what the experts have to say.

Spinach is touted as a super food and deservedly so. It is rich in folate, iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium and vitamins A and C. It contains properties (choline and inositol), which prevent hardening of the arteries. It’s loaded with cancer-fighting antioxidant flavonoids and carotenoids, lutein for healthy eyes and vitamin K for the blood. It has anti-aging properties, regulates the heartbeat and maintains bone structure. It may also reduce or aid in prevention of anemia, osteoporosis, tumors, high blood pressure, chronic indigestion, certain cancers and kidney, bladder and liver ailments. All that and it actually tastes good, too, in spite of what you may have heard or remember from childhood. Hey, if it’s good enough for Popeye…

Now, I did say I’d try to convince you to give it a try. That’s assuming you’re not already a fan. And if all the health benefits didn’t get you thinking it sounds good, maybe some serving suggestions will. It really is versatile. Use it raw or cooked, in casseroles and quiche, on sandwiches and pizza. Salad is an obvious idea, but you’ll love the variety of things, both sweet and savory, it mixes with. It pairs beautifully with mushrooms, goat cheese, nuts, citrus, eggs, bacon, apples, even berries. It stands up equally well to creamy dressings and vinaigrettes. It complements most proteins, with particular affinity for pork, lamb, salmon and chicken. It’s equally well suited to a side dish or center stage, as stuffing or a bed to showcase something else. Sauté it in a pan with garlic, bake it in a pie, toss it with pasta, purée it for soup or sauce or just eat it raw. I told you it’s hard to get bored!

A few helpful hints before you get started. It pays to know that spinach is typically grown in sandy soil, so always soak, wash and rinse fresh leaves to avoid any unpleasant grit. Also, fresh spinach cooks down considerably, to about one third of its original uncooked amount, so plan accordingly. And in case you want to hold on to the fresh stuff longer than the actual growing season allows, you need to know that you can’t dry or can it. Your best bet is to wash and thoroughly dry it and freeze it either in zip-top bags chopped or puréed where it will keep for up to eight months. If using it within a few days of purchase, it keeps best unwashed in a bag that breathes, in the vegetable drawer.

• SUMMER SPINACH SALAD with STRAWBERRIES – The unexpected surprise of strawberries is a real delight and may even tempt the fussiest children. It’s as pretty as it is tasty, so it deserves a place in your picnic basket or at your next dinner party. Whisk or shake together 1 cup oil, 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar, 1 tablespoon sugar and ½ teaspoon salt. In a large bowl, gently toss together 6 cups fresh spinach, washed and dried, 2 cups strawberries, hulled and sliced, ½ a red onion, thinly sliced and 1 cup mushrooms, sliced. Toss with dressing and top with freshly ground pepper. You can also add slivered almonds, spiced pecans or poppy seeds. For a party, I like to garnish it with edible flowers, such as nasturtiums. Serves 6.

• CLASSIC CREAMED SPINACH – For some reason, even people who insist they don’t like spinach seem to like this. It really is delicious and amazingly easy. Heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil or butter in a large skillet, add 3 lbs fresh spinach (thoroughly washed) and 2 cloves garlic, smashed but whole, and cook over medium-high heat until evenly wilted, stirring occasionally. Remove garlic and carefully drain spinach in a colander, squeezing out excess liquid. Set aside. Add 3/4 cup heavy cream and about ½ teaspoon nutmeg to the skillet and cook to reduce slightly, about 5 minutes. Add reserved spinach and mix through with freshly grated Parmesan cheese (about ¼ cup), salt and pepper to taste. Cook until hot, about 5 minutes more. Serves 6 – 8.

• FRESH SPINACH PESTO – This can be used as a sauce for chicken, tossed with pasta or spread on baguette slices and topped with chopped tomatoes. It also freezes extremely well. In a food processor or blender, combine 2 cups fresh spinach (washed thoroughly) with ¼ cup toasted pine nuts, 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, 1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest and a pinch of salt. With machine still running, gradually add 1/3 good quality extra virgin olive oil and blend until creamy. Stir in 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan, salt and pepper. Yum!

• CRUSTLESS SPINACH PIE – This has a simple crumb crust that eliminates the extra work involved in making and rolling out a piecrust. Allowing the finished pie to cool before serving brings out the flavor more and makes it a great choice for a warm night’s meal. Preheat oven to 350º. Place 1 lb fresh washed, stemmed and chopped spinach in a large skillet with ½ cup of water, cover and cook over medium heat until wilted. Drain well and set aside. In a bowl, combine 1 cup dried breadcrumbs, ¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese and ½ stick (4 tablespoons) softened butter. Press evenly into a 9 inch pie plate and chill for 15-30 minutes to set. In a large bowl, whisk together 3 eggs, I ½ cups ricotta cheese, ¼ cup sour cream, ½ cup Parmesan, 2 tablespoons freshly chopped basil (or 1 tablespoon dried), a pinch of nutmeg, salt and pepper. Stir in the spinach and mix well. Pour into chilled crust, sprinkle top generously with grated Parmesan and bake until firm, about 45 minutes. Cool to room temperature and serve.
Memorial Day may be past, and our fervent love of all things grilled may be well underway, but remember, man cannot live by burgers alone. We need at least the occasional vegetable thrown into the mix to keep us fit and ready for all the fun and activity summer promises. Consider more than a slice of tomato or squirt of ketchup on your burger to fulfill this requirement. Consider spinach. It’s fresh, it’s locally in-season, it’s versatile and it’s deliciously good for you. Find ways to include it in several meals a week and you’re sure to fuel a fire other than the one under the grill. You’ll be powered up, and, like a kid on vacation again, ready for all the wonderful things there are to do in a Hudson Valley summer. Go out , play and enjoy!