Spinach (spinacia oleracea) in the Amaranthaceae family is native to central and western Asia in the area formerly known as Persia. It germinates in temperatures of 45 to 75 degrees and grows best in the cooler seasons. Higher temperatures cause it to bolt and go to seed much faster and the leaves are less tender. Spinach is an annual plant that grows to about one foot tall. The leaves are ovate triangular, simple, and alternate. It comes in three varieties: savoy, dark and crinkly leaves; flat, broad and smooth; and semi-savoy, a hybrid variety. In the northeast we get two crops of spinach, in spring and fall.
Prized for its sweet, tender leaves, both fresh or cooked, spinach made its way across Southern Europe through the 13th century. By the 1600s it was being served to the Kings and Queens of England, eventually being brought to North America. In 1806 at least three cultivars were known to be grown by American Colonists.
Nutritionally spinach is 90% water, 4% carbohydrates, 3% protein, and the last 2% is fiber. It contains vitamins A, C, K, B, B6, E, magnesium, manganese, iron, calcium, potassium, and fiber.
But what does this all mean?
Magnesium is necessary for energy metabolism, maintaining muscle and nerve function, regular heart rhythm, healthy immune system, and maintaining blood pressure.
Spinach is high in an antioxidant called alpha-lipoic acid, which has been shown to lower glucose levels, increase insulin sensitivity, which can help aid people in managing their diabetes.
The chlorophyll found in spinach and other leafy greens is believed to be effective in blocking the carcinogenic effects of heterocyclic amines (these are generated when grilling foods at a high temperature).
Children who consume high amounts of beta-carotene are at lower risk of developing asthma.
Potassium can help reduce the effects of sodium in the body helping people control high blood pressure.
Vitamin K consumption acts as a modifier of bone matrix proteins and improves calcium absorption making stronger bones.
Vitamin A helps moderate the production of oil in the skin and hair follicles giving us clear skin and healthy hair. Vitamin C is crucial for building and maintaining collagen which provides structure to skin and hair.
Iron is very important in affecting how efficiently the body uses energy. It is a major component of hemoglobin, the substance in red blood cells that is responsible for carrying oxygen from your lungs throughout your body.
E.C. Segar was the cartoonist responsible for creating Popeye in 1929. He was a vegetarian who promoted the benefits of eating vegetables by creating a character whose strength was boosted from eating spinach.
All this goodness does come with risks. Consuming too much potassium can be harmful for those whose kidneys are not fully functional. Those taking blood-thinners, such as warfarin, need to be careful consuming too much vitamin K, which plays a key role in blood clotting and the combination of calcium binding with the oxalates in spinach can cause kidney stones.
Organic vs. Conventionally Grown vs. Local
China is the largest producer of spinach in the world. At 92%, that equals 26.7 million tons!
Locally grown spinach is the best way to get your green on. Spinach loses much of its nutritional value with storage of more than a few days. Refrigeration slows the effect for up to eight days, but it will lose most of its folate (B vitamins) and carotenoid content. For longer storage it can be blanched and frozen shortly after being harvested. It will then last up to eight months with most of the vitamins intact. Interestingly, 3.5 oz of cooked spinach contains 3.5 mg of iron. 3.5 oz of ground beef only has 2.49 mg. The down side of spinach is that it contains oxalate which binds with the iron rendering it unusable for the body. The same goes for calcium in spinach. It is among the least bioavailable of food calcium sources. Broccoli has calcium which is much more absorbable with 50% being bioavailable, whereas spinach it’s just 5%. But there are tricks that scientists discovered to make spinach both more nutritional and delicious.
Adding vitamin C to lightly cooked spinach helps our bodies more easily absorb the iron. An example is to add fresh lemon juice or eat it with a tomato. Vitamin D helps our body absorb the calcium. Mix cheese or eggs with your spinach. Fatty fish is also a good source of vitamin D.
Fresh spinach is packed in nitrogen gas to extend its shelf life. Some packaged spinach is exposed to radiation to kill any harmful bacteria that may be on the leaves. The FDA approves radiation because their studies show irradiated spinach does not lose any of its nutritional value. It puts it into an animated suspension until you purchase it (a good three weeks after it was harvested and traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to your grocery store shelf). Once you open that package, I’m sure you notice that it turns into green slime within a few days.
The soil in which the spinach is grown is also a very important factor in its nutritional value. Cadmium is a bi-product from industrial processes like PVC products, anti-corrosive agents, and phosphate fertilizers. High concentrations have been found in green leafy vegetables like spinach, lettuce, kale, and swiss chard. The effects of cadmium-contaminated foods are acute gastrointestinal symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea. Kidney damage has long since been described by people chronically exposed to cadmium. It builds up in the kidney and causes stones to develop. Pregnant women exposed to high levels of cadmium is associated with low birth weight and increase of spontaneous abortion. It can also cause bone damage to workers exposed to cadmium dust. The effect shows patients to have increased rates of osteoporosis, higher rate of fractures and skeletal decalcification
[source: www.ncb.nlm.nih.gov “The Toxicity of Cadmium and the Resulting Hazards for Human Health”]
Strawberry Spinach Salad
6 cups baby spinach
½ sweet, white onion cut in slices
1 cup fresh strawberries, cut in half
Dressing: I clove crushed garlic
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
Salt & pepper
Wash and spin dry spinach and place in a low, wide bowl. Place white onion rings over spinach then toss strawberries over the top. Put all the dressing ingredients in a small mason jar and shake to mix together. Just before serving, drizzle dressing over the salad and gently toss.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
1 sheet defrosted puff pastry
1 bunch scallions, chopped
1 bunch fresh Italian parsley, chopped
1 bunch fresh dill, chopped
1 bunch swiss chard, washed and chopped
2 lbs spinach, washed and chopped
1 can marinated artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup feta cheese, crumbled
2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
Salt & pepper
Roll out puff pastry to fit the size of a 9 x 13 baking pan. In a bowl, mix all the ingredients then spoon into the baking pan. Lay the puff pastry on top and pierce it with a fork throughout the sheet. Brush top with extra virgin olive oil.
Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes, then take off the foil and bake for another 15. Let cool before cutting and serving.
Green Machine Smoothie
1 cup baby spinach
I gala apple, cored and quartered
2 Tbs fresh lemon juice
1 tsp fresh grated ginger
1 Tbs. local raw honey or maple syrup (or agave syrup)
1 cup water (or green tea)
Put all ingredients into a blender and blend until smooth. Enjoy!
Globalization has triumphed in the produce aisle. More than half the fresh fruits and one third of the vegetables in our supermarkets are imported from other countries. But anyone with taste-buds knows that just because it looks good, doesn’t mean it tastes good.
We are incredibly lucky to be living in one of the most fertile valleys in the Northeast. The soil in the Rondout Valley is called unadilla silt loam. It is a mineral rich, glacially deposited topsoil ideal for growing fruits, vegetables, and grains. Our region’s farms produce a wide variety of seasonal crops which are bursting with flavor and personality. Here is our Autumnal locavore’s dilemma.
We have so many varieties to choose from; butternut or hubbard? – or should we try kabocha, acorn, buttercup, golden nugget, delicata, pink banana, neck pumpkin, turk’s cap, Long Island cheese, cushaw, cocozelle, Rouge Vif d’Etampes and many, many other squash and pumpkin —which are technically in the same family “cucurbitaceae” varieties—in various colors, shapes and sizes. What does this all mean?
The name “squash” comes from the Narragansett Native American Indian word “askutasquash”. Originally believed to have been from Central America or Mexico, humans have used their hard shells as containers for utensils and have eaten the flesh, flowers, and young shoots raw or cooked for almost 10,000 years. Learning from the Native Americans, European settlers adopted squash as a staple in North America. They baked the squash and then cut and mixed it with animal fat, maple syrup or honey.
Saving Seeds and Pollination
The reason we have so many varieties is because people learned to save seeds from squash with the unique qualities they preferred. Many different varieties developed all over the world. Squash are pollinated by insects, so in order to avoid unwanted hybrids, you must make sure that the plant was pollinated by another member of the same variety. The first generation of fruit gets its characteristics from the mother plant, so you will indeed enjoy the delicata you had planted. But say your delicata squash was pollinated by a sugar pie pumpkin, the genes within the seeds will be altered and the following year, when you grow that seed, you will get a pumpcata, or is it a delikin? You need at least ¼ mile between squash varieties to avoid Frankensquash (unless you like that sort of experiment, who knows? You may come up with a fabulous cross that you can name after yourself … Pink Jenana d’ Etamps perhaps?).
Did you know the seeds are edible of all squash and pumpkins? The seeds are an excellent source of magnesium, zinc and potassium, as well as iron, protein and fiber. So don’t compost them with the stringy guts… Here is what to do with them.
2 cups raw, rinsed and dried squash or pumpkin seeds
1 Tbs. olive oil
½ tsp sea salt
After cutting open the squash, scoop out the “guts”. Pick the seeds out of the stringy fiber and toss them into a colander. Rinse under cold water, then pat dry with a tea towel. Spread the seeds into a baking tray and drizzle with olive oil and sea salt. Mix it around until all the seeds are coated. Place into a preheated 350 degree oven and roast in the oven, stirring occasionally until they are lightly golden. Allow to cool before snacking. Pumpkin seeds are best soon after roasting.
Curried Coconut Squash Soup
1 medium kabocha squash ( about 3 lbs)
1 tbsp olive oil
2 cups chopped yellow onions
2 ribs celery, sliced
3 cloves chopped garlic
1 ¼ teaspoon cumin
1 ½ teaspoon curry powder
½ teaspoon ground coriander
1 can coconut milk
3 cups unsalted vegetable stock
2 teaspoons salt (more or less according to taste)
Hopefully the squash you just harvested the seeds from is a kabocha because curried, coconut squash soup is on the menu tonight and the kabocha, with its thick, solid, waxy, orange flesh that is ideal for soup. Take the two sides of your squash, rub with olive oil and place on a baking tray inside a preheated 400 degree oven for 45 minutes (or until completely soft).
Saute the onions, celery & garlic in olive oil in a heavy bottom, 8 quart soup kettle until golden brown. Sprinkle the spices into the kettle and saute until fragrant (about 1-2 minutes). Slowly add the vegetable stock and bring to a simmer.
Once the squash is soft, place the roasted flesh into the pot with the vegetables (I leave the skin on the squash for added vitamins & fiber, but you can remove it if you prefer). Bring to a simmer over medium heat, and partially cover for 8-10 minutes.
Turn the heat off, and add the coconut milk. Puree the soup with an immersion blender. Add salt & pepper to taste. Serve with chopped cilantro & a squeeze of lime juice.
Maple Cinnamon Roasted Neck Pumpkin*
8 cups cubed Neck Pumpkin (*butternut squash can be used as replacement if you can’t locate this graceful giant at your local farmers market. This squash is ideal because it is tender and juicy, yet holds its shape), about 3 lbs of peeled cubes
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp maple syrup
½ tsp sea salt
½ tsp cinnamon
2 pinches cayenne
Preheat oven to 425
Line a baking 2 baking trays with aluminum foil (or use a silpat silicone liner so when the sugars caramelize it won’t be too hard to clean) Spread out the cubes evenly on the trays.
Drizzle the squash with 1 tbsp olive oil and maple syrup per sheet.
Sprinkle each sheet evenly with ¼ tsp cinnamon, salt & pinch of cayenne
Toss the squash on the sheets with clean hands to coat evenly
Place the pans in the preheated oven and roast for 30 minutes, switching racks halfway and cooking until all the squash is tender. Remove the baking sheets from the oven and turn on the broiler. Take turns placing each sheet under the broiler for 1-2 minutes to caramelize (be careful it does not burn! The sugars cause it to brown very fast).
This dish is delicious served warm or cold. As a side , or tossed onto a bed of raw spinach and dressed with a squeeze of lemon juice.
No matter what you call it – squash or pumpkin, our valley is flush with these disparate cucurbits this month. Whether you carve a jack-o-lantern or create a delicious meal, get out there and support our local farmers buy purchasing from your local farmstand.