Good spinach is the beef of plants. It has a meaty vibe and can get you a little high, the way sushi can. This green fleshy feeling is due in part to the extreme chlorophyll density in spinach, and because the plant’s tender, watery build makes this chlorophyll unusually accessible.
Chlorophyll is thought to be a “blood-building” nutrient because it’s freakishly similar in structure to hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying molecule in blood. Other healthful properties attributed to chlorophyll include: enhanced healing of wounds (and suppression of foul odors coming from wounds), cancer-fighting qualities, protection from radiation, and speeding of bone healing and tissue regeneration.
Small baby spinach leaves are all the rage. In fact, Aaron Ames, executive chef at Arad Evans Inn, 7206 E. Genesee St., Fayetteville, cooks only with the nascent green leaves.
“It’s sweeter,” he says. “The big spinach is more bitter and you have to do more with it to make it work. It’s just not a winner across the board. Everyone loves baby spinach, and you don’t feel you have to explain it; people don’t want to go to class when they go out to eat.”
While Ames says he cooks with baby spinach year-round, this is when he is able to secure it locally—and, with luck, organically. “I would rather put money back into New York state farms than spend it on California spinach,” he notes. “Plus, when it’s organic, that just benefits everyone.”
Ames purchases it, for the most part, from Sticks and Stones Farm outside Ithaca. “It’s slightly larger than the traditional baby spinach you buy in the store. Once you pick the stem off, it sautees better.”
Ames counts on being able to cook with locally grown spinach from April to August, “or March to September if you’re lucky. I love using it in salads; I use spinach three or four days out of every two weeks. It’s one of those wonderful products that you can do anything with and it’ll come out great.” Ames is currently combining spinach and artichokes with a chevre—“in a play on the traditional spinach and artichoke dip,” he says—and serving it with duck and a mission fig sauce.
Some still prefer the big, leafy spinach, such as a savoy, also known as crinkled or curly leaf, like Tyee or Bloomsdale. The leaves are bigger, thicker and make a bold and juicy mouthful. Alas, most of what’s available in stores are the flat, smooth-leaf varieties that lend themselves to mass cultivation. The whole plant is harvested, bunched with other plants, packed into crates and delivered to your store or restaurant.
Savoy is generally sold loose-leaf, or picked as needed if it’s growing outside. In keeping with the sushi-like feeling that raw spinach imparts, I like to dress my spinach leaves in a mixture of soy sauce, wasabi, rice vinegar and a few drops each of lime juice and sesame oil. Or, for a fun appetizer, dip the leaves into the dressing like chips into salsa; the crinkly folds grip the sauce. If you really want to get crazy, whip up a batch of super salsa by adding mayonnaise to the salsa.
If you have a lot of spinach, saag paneer is a great option. This classic Indian dish is made with homemade cheese, although some people make it with tofu instead of cheese, which is totally weak—if you don’t want cheese, fine, but don’t bother searching for some other chunky white protein.
Other spring greens can be used in addition to or instead of spinach, including turnip greens, kale, wild nettles, overwintering mustard greens, dandelion, lambs quarter and other edible weeds. Some aficionados swear that saag paneer isn’t right if it doesn’t contain mustard greens as well as spinach.
The dish needs tomatoes in order to taste right. You can use fresh tomatoes, and I’ll do so when I make saag paneer with fall spinach, but I think homemade ketchup is the best. It has a sweet flavor, fragrant with cloves, that goes beautifully with the spices, and it gives body to the green mush.
The process begins with the making of the cheese, a.k.a. paneer. Heat a half-gallon of whole milk on medium-high in a thick-bottomed pan, stirring often with a rubber spatula or similar implement to prevent scalding. You have to be vigilant, because mere seconds will pass between when the milk is almost boiling and when it’s boiling over into a frothy, foamy mess.
As soon as it begins to boil, turn off the heat and add four tablespoons of lemon juice, stirring steadily. The milk should separate into watery whey with thick curds floating on top. If the whey still appears creamy, add another tablespoon of lemon juice. Lay at least four layers of cheesecloth into a colander set inside a big bowl and pour the curdled milk through the cheesecloth. The whey can be used for other cooking purposes or fed to animals. Tie the corners of the cheesecloth together and hang over the whey bowl so it continues draining and the curds settle into a hard cheese. Squeeze the curds to get more whey out.
Now wash your spinach and/or other greens. While spinach stems are tender enough to leave in, tougher stems like those from kale, nettles or mustard greens should be removed (you can steam or boil those separately). For each half-pound of greens, chop one or two serrano or jalapeno peppers and a teaspoon of ginger. Cook the peppers and ginger for a few minutes in a quarter-inch of water. Add a half-teaspoon of salt, then add the greens. Put a lid on and cook for five minutes, stirring occasionally and being careful not to let the water evaporate. Let the greens cool, then puree in a blender.
Cut your cheese into cubes and lightly brown them in a hot pan with oil or ghee. The browning brings out a nutty flavor, but don’t rush it. Low heat makes a better brown that’s easier to control. Set aside the browned cheese. In a pan with oil or ghee on medium heat, add a pinch of fenugreek seeds (available in health-food sections or stores), a pinch of cumin powder and a pinch or more of coriander, and cook for 30 seconds. Add an onion, chopped, and your tomato product: either a fresh tomato, minced or a quarter-cup ketchup or a half-cup of canned tomatoes, and one or two chopped garlic cloves. Cook until it’s integrated and soupy. Then add the cheese and stir-fry until the cheese heats up. Then add the pureed greens.
Let it cook together for a few minutes, and it’s done.
Saag paneer is typically served with an aromatic rice, like basmati or jasmine. And the green, chlorophyll cream can also be made in bulk, when spinach is plentiful, and frozen in meal-sized portions for later use. It holds up well in the freezer for months. Which is more than you can say about sushi.
This recipe, a healthy one from
Paula Deen, is from foodnetwork.com.
1 (10 to 12-ounce) package
baby spinach, washed and dried
½ cup sliced almonds, toasted
1 pint strawberries, hulled
1 medium cucumber, peeled,
seeded, and finely diced
½ lemon, juiced
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon poppy seeds
In a large salad bowl, add the spinach, almonds, strawberries, and cucumber and toss together. For the dressing: In a small glass bowl or jar with a tight-fitting lid, combine the lemon juice, vinegar, sugar, oil, and poppy seeds. Whisk together in the glass bowl or shake if using a jar. Dress the salad right before serving.