Spinach: An Unexpected Indulgence

by The Gilded Fork

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a test kitchen dossier

I’m strong to the finich cause I eats me spinach.
– Popeye the Sailor Man

Foodstuff: Spinach

Etymology: From the Arabic isbinãkh

Area of Origin: Persia (modern-day Iran and parts of East Asia)

Description
We here at the Gilded Fork like a challenge. Of course, we could pick any number of foodstuffs that would have you salivating merely at their mention; but that would be too easy. So try to fight off any ill-fated childhood memories of being forced to choke down one more mouthful of you-know-what. Remember: The Gilded Fork is an adult magazine – that means check your childhood prejudices at the door. If you give us a few minutes of your time and rally your creative juices to try a few recipes, we give you our word that the finer delights of this misjudged vegetable will soon be revealed to you. After all, just because it’s good for you doesn’t mean you can’t love it. . .

When carefully selected and prepared, spinach has a fresh, crisp texture and slightly bitter taste that are both refreshing and enticing. This leafy green provides the perfect backdrop for mixing textures, temperatures and flavors; it pairs equally well with sweet foods like strawberries in salads, and sharp cheeses such as feta in a mouth-watering spanakopita (a kind of Greek savory pie made from spinach and feta between layers of phyllo dough). Spinach inspires improvisation and creativity, and what more could we ask of any ingredient?

These little green leaves are ultimately very forgiving, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t treat them with care. (Note: Smaller leaves will be more tender and have a less pronounced bitterness.) Always wash spinach, even if it says pre-washed, because any grit will ruin the texture, but aside from that there is very little labor involved on the road toward satiety. Of course, the worst thing we can do to spinach is overcook it – it demands a delicate touch and restrained treatment. When cooked, spinach only needs to be wilted, not totally dehydrated; when it turns a bright, vibrant green, it is finished cooking. Sautéed spinach should be served immediately, and luckily it only takes a minute or two to cook, so it’s easy to do at the last minute before plating your meal.

History
Wild spinach is believed to have grown throughout east Asia, but hot temperatures caused the plants to bolt (turn into a less edible, seed-producing form) so quickly that they were impossible to cultivate. The Persians solved this problem with an ingenious irrigation method, probably around 700 AD. Soon after, spinach made its way to China when the king of Nepal sent it as a gift to the Emperor. It was then introduced by the Moors to Spain in the eleventh century and soon spread to Italy. Legend has it that spinach was the favorite vegetable of Catherine de Medici, and when she married King Henry II, she brought her love of spinach from Florence to France. That is why French dishes prepared on a bed of spinach (or often garnished with spinach) are called “à la Florentine.” Interestingly, throughout the seventeenth century spinach was often cooked with sugar and used in sweet dishes.

In the U.S., spinach was waning in popularity by the 1930s, and the industry was in serious trouble until a man named E.C. Segar created the famous “Popeye” comic strip. One theory behind the Segar’s use of spinach to imbue Popeye with inhuman strength is that in 1870 a scientist named Dr. E. von Wolf miscalculated spinach’s iron content as being ten times greater than it is actually is. This figure wasn’t corrected until 1937. Whatever the reason, spinach soon became as popular as Popeye. The town of Crystal City, Texas (heavily dependent on the spinach industry) was so grateful that its citizens erected a statue in Popeye’s honor, where it still stands today.

Varieties of Spinach
Spinach is available throughout the year, but its peak seasons are from March through May and September through October. Winter spinach is generally a little hardier and thicker than spring and summer spinach.

As spinach contains a lot of water, its volume decreases considerably when cooked. And while there is nothing wrong with bagged spinach, spinach that is sold in bunches (e.g. at the farmer’s market) is usually fresher and of a higher quality.

Baby spinach
Baby spinach refers to any form that is picked when the leaves are very small and the stems very thin. Always the best choice for eating raw, baby spinach can also be delicious when cooked; however, just because something is called “baby spinach” doesn’t mean it’s a good choice for salad spinach. Some brands of baby spinach are much larger and more mature than others, so do your best to seek out the smallest, palest, most tender leaves you can. You will certainly taste the difference.

Savoy spinach
Common among bagged spinach, Savoy spinach can be identified by its dark-green, crinkly, curly leaves.

Flat/smooth leaf spinach
This spinach is rarely available fresh, but is often used for canned and frozen spinach.

Semi-Savoy
This hybrid variety has slightly crinkled leaves and is often sold fresh at markets.

Our Approach
So yes, we have chosen to celebrate spinach as an Indulgence, meaning that we are presenting it in some more elegant ways than might be commonly expected. We’ve crafted towers, a lovely warm-weather soup and a deliciously rich dip. Who said spinach was for health nuts?

Recipes

Spicy Artichoke Spinach Dip
Asparagus and Spinach Soup with Yuzu Custard
Spinach Tortellini Soup
O-Hitashi: Mini Spinach Towers
Lamb Loin with Baby Spinach, Sun-Dried Tomatoes & Bush Tomato Chutney

Sources
Mediterranean and World Cuisines: your source for cuisine and history
Larousse Gastronomique
The Worldwide Gourmet: All about Spinach

Dossier by China Millman

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