Popeye got it right. Eat spinach and you, too, can be invincible. Or at least that’s the impression I had as a kid when he rolled up his sleeves and showed off his bulging biceps. I thought: Wow. He’s powerful! Then I’d clap my hands with glee when Popeye took a swipe at Blimpy, sending him off to Kingdom Come. And I never forgot Popeye’s mantra, “I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam.” Thinking of this today, it seems pretty profound.
Of course this is all leading to the joy of cooking spinach, that amazing and versatile vegetable. Spinach may not have been a hot item 50 years ago but today, few homes are without it. Yet it seems that most people only use spinach in salads.
Not that I frown on spinach salads. They are great and it’s easy to be inventive as fresh spinach goes well with fruit, other vegetables, eggs, meats and any kind of dressing. But I’ve come across some wonderful recipes that make for great cooked side dishes using spinach.
But first, do you know that spinach was grown in Persia (now Iran) as early as the eight century? Although spinach loathes hot weather, the Arabs had a sophisticated irrigation system and were able to cool down the beds and keep the plots arid. Later, spinach found its way to China where it was (and still is) known as the “Persian green.”
In case you’re wondering, there are about 40,000 seeds in a pound and it takes 600,000 seeds to sow an acre of spinach. (I know this to be true. I farmed many moons ago and once planted a field of spinach. It was a disaster. But that’s a story for another time.)
Spinach is 80 percent water; a pound of spinach (10-12 cups) will reduce down to about a cup and a half when cooked. Eaten raw, spinach is high in vitamin A (beta-carotene), vitamin C and folate. When it’s cooked, it releases riboflavin, B6, iron, calcium and magnesium. But don’t let it go to mush. Popeye would not approve.
The simplest (and best) way to cook spinach is to wash it thoroughly and shake off excess water. Then heat a little oil in a large pan, add liberal amounts of chopped garlic then sauté for a couple of minutes. Turn three or four times as you are cooking. It’s ready as soon as the spinach gets a little limp.
My sister Carmen Phinney recently served up a tasty dish made with spinach and chickpeas. She used her own Garam Masala recipe. Both are below and here’s a bonus: Garam Masala can be used many ways. Try a couple of tablespoons in a stir fry of cauliflower and tomatoes. Or sprinkled it in soups, salads and sandwiches. But I digress.
Without further adieu, please welcome (and try) these new spinach recipes. (And check out Michelle Sutherland’s website. She drew the Popeye character for me. Gotta love it!)
Spiced Chickpeas and Spinach
¼ C oil
2 C chopped onion
4 tsp Garam Masala (see below)
2 cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1/2 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
1/2 tsp sea salt
1 large bunch spinach (10-12 oz.)
1 tbsp lemon juice
½ C fresh cilantro
Heat oil in a non-stick frying pan over med-high heat. Add onions and sauté until light brown, 8-10 minutes. Add Garam Masala and stir 1 minute or until spices become fragrant. Stir in chickpeas, salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat for 3-4 minutes then add spinach and cook briefly, mixing well, until spinach is just slightly wilted. If mixture becomes dry, add a tbsp or two of water. Remove from heat, stir in lemon juice and sprinkle chopped cilantro on top.
Finely grind the following together and store in an airtight jar:
1 tsp cardamom seeds
2 tsp cloves
2 tbsp cumin seeds
2 tbsp coriander seeds
2 bay leaves
1 x 3-in. cinnamon stick
1 tbsp black peppercorns
3 lb of fresh spinach
2 C milk
2 C cheddar cheese, grated
3 tbsp of butter
2 rounded tbsp of flour
salt and pepper to taste
pinch of cayenne
pinch of nutmeg
Wash spinach, put in large pot, cover and steam until wilted (about 3-4 minutes). Cool. Place is a sieve and press out excess water. In a saucepan, melt butter, add the flour to make a roux then add the milk and whisk while cooking until thickened. Add seasonings. Simmer for a couple of minutes. Mix sauce, spinach and three quarters of the cheese. Spoon into a buttered baking dish then top with remaining cheese. Bake at 375°F until bubbly (about 15 minutes). Serve hot.
“Popeye got it right. Eat your spinach!” Illustrated by Michelle Sutherland, Creative Tides
“Spiced Chickpea and Spinach” © Sandra Phinney
“Baked Spinach and Cheese” © Sandra Phinney
The fella that Popeye would take a swipe at was named Bluto or Brutus (depending on the era). Blimpy was the guy that was obsessed with the hamburgers.