The emerald-green leaves of Spinach are available almost year-round but it grows best in spring and autumn when the leaves grow vigorously in the typically temperate conditions. In summer, when it struggles to grow in the heat, Spinach tends to produce flowers when the leaves are quite small and it becomes a difficult plant to grow. There is a leaf known as ‘perpetual spinach’, which, as its name suggests, really does grow year-round but its leaves are decidedly coarser than true Spinach. Spinach is a member of the Beet family along with Chard. There are many varieties of Spinach from the flat-leaved to the larger, deeply crinkled types. Some leaves are fine enough to be eaten raw in salads – not just those tiny leaves you find bagged-up in supermarkets – though they prefer to be dressed at the last moment. As I write this in mid-Spring our Spinach is arriving from France and Italy, to be followed later by the British-grown crop. The Italian Spinach tends to come in a rosette, its rosy lower stems having been cut jut above the root.
In terms of vitamins and minerals, we tend to think of Spinach as being rich in iron, and it is but, we now know, not in a form from which we can benefit. Spinach is however high in vitamin A and of folic acid as well as phenolic anti-oxidants and compounds that are known to reduce potential cancer-causing damage to our DNA.
When buying Spinach, it’s worth remembering that it’s volume is reduced by around three quarters when cooked. Let your cooking be brief - seconds rather than minutes – and the water left clinging to the leaves from washing is enough, along with a knob of butter. Nutmeg and lemon are good seasonings for spinach. The leaves combine well with dairy products like cream, yogurt and creamy cheeses. Salty additions like anchovies or bacon/pancetta are good ideas too and it’s the perfect greens to pair with eggs.
The Spinach plant was developed in Persia as long ago as the 6th century and Kukuye Esfanaj is a Persian deep omelette using spinach, potato, onion and eggs. It’s thought to be the origin of the Spanish Tortilla as it was taken to Spain during the Arab conquest. There is a Catalan dish of spinach served - sometimes raw, sometimes cooked – with toasted pine nuts and raisins with a vinaigrette dressing. In Italy, spinach is put to many uses and they have a version of this dish too. It’s frequently used as a stuffing, with ricotta, for ravioli, of course. Easier than stuffing pasta and equally tasty are the Italian dumplings Malfatti or Gnocchi. Eggs Florentine – a gratin of spinach, boiled or poached eggs and sauce Mornay – comes, not as you might suppose from Italy but France. Apparently named in acknowledgement of the superiority of Florentine gardeners in the growing of spinach. In France, there is a tradition in Provence to serve a sweetened spinach tart as part of the Christmas Eve feast. Sweetened spinach? Not so strange when you know that Tudor England had a similar tart flavoured with rosewater, and later with candied orange and lemon peel. The Indian dish saag aloo calls for spinach and potatoes to be cooked with softened onion and spices – the one time I would break my rule of quick-cooking spinach. A salad of raw spinach leaves combined with fried bacon/pancetta, sliced cucumber and avocado works well when brought together with a lemon and olive oil dressing. Mixed with a béchamel sauce, spinach makes a fantastic filling for pancakes – the Fern Verrow cookbook has a good recipe for this. And spinach makes a very good soup too, particularly when combined 50/50 with spring nettles and finished with a little cream.