Spinach (Spinacia oleracea) belongs to the same family (Chenopodiaceae) as beets and chard. It shares a similar taste proﬁle with these two other vegetables—it has the bitterness of beet greens and the slightly salty ﬂavor of chard. There are three different types of spinach generally avail- able: Savoy has crisp, creased, curly dark green leaves that have a springy texture. Semi-Savoy is similar in texture and color to Savoy but is not as crinkled in appearance. And Smooth-leaf has ﬂat, unwrinkled, spade-shaped, medium-green leaves.
History of Spinach
Spinach originated in southwestern Asia or Persia as a wild plant. It has been cultivated in China and many areas of the other areas of Asia and the Middle East for at least 2,000 years. It was used as an important medicinal plant in many traditional systems of medicine. Spinach grows very well in temperate climates. Spinach cultivation in Europe has a more recent history, however, as it began only in the eleventh century, when the Moors introduced it into Spain. In fact, for a while, spinach was known as “the Spanish vegetable” in England.
One of the classic uses of spinach is using it as a bed to place entrées upon. This popular use owes its origin to Catherine de Médicis in the sixteenth century. When she left her home in Florence to marry the king of France, she brought not only spinach seeds to plant, but also her own cooks who prepared spinach in the ways she preferred. Since this time, dishes prepared on a bed of spinach have been referred to as “a la Florentine.”
The United States and the Netherlands are among the largest commercial producers of spinach today.
Nutritional Highlights of Spinach
A one-cup serving of spinach has only 41 calories, but it is extremely nutrient-dense. It is an excellent source of vitamin K, carotene, vitamin C, and folic acid. It is also a very good source of manganese, magnesium, iron, and vitamin B 2. In addition, spinach is a good source of vitamins B 6, E, and B 1.
Health Benefits of Spinach
There is much lore regarding spinach (e.g., the source of Popeye’s strength). Historically, it was regarded as a plant with remarkable abilities to restore energy, increase vitality, and improve the quality of the blood. There are sound reasons why spinach would produce such results, primarily the fact that spinach contains twice as much iron as most other greens. Spinach is also one of the most alkaline-producing foods making it useful in helping to regulate body pH.
Spinach is one of the richest dietary sources of lutein making it an especially important food for promoting healthy eye-sight and preventing macular degeneration and cataracts. Spinach, like other chlorophyll and carotene containing vegetables, is a strong protector against cancer. In addition to carotenes such as lutein, researchers have identiﬁed at least thirteen different ﬂavonoid compounds in spinach that function as antioxidants and as anticancer agents. Many of these substances fall into a category of ﬂavonoids known as methylene- dioxyﬂavonol glucuronides.
The anticancer properties of these spinach ﬂavonoids have been sufﬁciently impressive to prompt researchers to create specialized spinach extracts that can be used in controlled studies. These spinach extracts have been shown to slow down cell division in human stomach cancer cells (gastric adenocarcinomas) and, in studies on mice, to reduce skin cancers (skin papillomas).
A study on adult women living in New England in the late 1980s also showed intake of spinach to be inversely related to incidence of breast cancer. In other words, the higher the intake of spinach, the lower the incidence of breast cancer.
How To Select And Store Spinach
Fresh spinach should be medium to dark green, fresh-looking, and free from any evidence of decay. Fresh spinach should be stored loosely packed in a sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator crisper, where it will keep for about four days. Do not wash spinach before storing, as the moisture will cause it to spoil. Cooked spinach does not store too well, certainly no longer than one day in the refrigerator. Spinach can be frozen after being blanched for two minutes, although this will cause its texture to become very soft, so do not completely thaw it before cooking.
Tips For Preparing Spinach
Spinach, whether bunched or prepackaged, should be washed very well, since the leaves and stems tend to collect sand and soil. Before washing, trim off the roots and separate the leaves. Place the spinach in a large bowl of cold water in a mild solution of additive-free soap or commercial produce wash and swish the leaves around with your hands, as this will allow any dirt to become dislodged.
Remove the leaves from the water, empty the bowl, reﬁll with clean water, and repeat this process until no dirt remains in the water—usually two to three times will do the trick. Cut away any overly thick stems for more even cooking. If you are going to use the spinach in a salad, you can dry it by shaking it in a colander or using a salad spinner. If you are going to steam the spinach, don’t worry about drying it. Slightly wilted spinach can be revived to freshness by placing it in cold water.
Quick Serving Ideas for Spinach
- Instead of, or in addition to, lettuce, use raw spinach leaves in your dinner salad.
- Lightly sauté spinach with garlic in olive oil. Top with lemon juice and pine nuts.
- Add layers of spinach to any lasagna recipe.
- Use spinach leaves as a garnish for sandwiches.
- Serve sautéed spinach topped with red onion slices and goat cheese and sprinkled with balsamic vinegar as a warm spinach salad.
Spinach contains a high amount of oxalate. Individuals with a history of oxalate-containing kidney stones should avoid over consuming it. Spinach also contains purines and should be consumed in moderation by people with gout. Since spinach is among the foods on which pesticide residues have been most frequently found, we recommend choosing spinach grown organically. If not, then be sure to prepare it as described above.