Popeye's Secret Weapon

by Mark R. Vogel

            Spinach may have provided Popeye with superhuman strength, but its real life potential is far less lofty.  In fact, its nutritional reputation is somewhat inflated.  Spinach contains oxalic acid which inhibits the absorption of its calcium and iron.  Moreover, it contains other nutrients that are not fully absorbed when it is consumed raw.  This is not to say that spinach is not good for you.  But, like many health and nutritional claims, the surface hype usually obscures the underlying scientific reality.  

            Spinach originated in Persia, (modern day Iran).  The earliest records of its cultivation go back 2,000 years.  It was introduced to China in the 600’s and to Spain around 1100.  By the 16th century it was well established in Europe.  The Spaniards brought it to America.  Spinach was the first vegetable frozen and sold commercially.  That honor goes to Clarence Birdseye in Springfield Massachusetts in 1930.  Fresh spinach is available year round.  California and Texas are the major growers. 

            There are four main types of spinach.  Savoy sports crinkled, dark green leaves, Flat or Smooth-Leaf is self-descriptive, Semi-Savoy’s leaves are in-between Savoy and Flat, and Baby spinach is a smaller Flat-Leaf variety.  The latter are very tender and desirable for salads.  Choose spinach with crisp and vibrantly green leaves.  Avoid specimens that are limp or discolored. Store it in the fridge in a bag for up to three days.  Spinach can be very gritty and must be rinsed thoroughly, even the so-called “pre-washed” type sold in packages. 

            Despite the aforementioned encumbrance to utilizing its calcium and iron, spinach has other nutritional benefits.  It contains vitamins A, C, folic acid, magnesium and potassium.  Spinach is high in carotenoids, a group of substances espoused to fight cancer and perform other miracles.  However, like carrots, the spinach must be cooked to optimize the absorption of the carotenoids. 

            My favorite way of enjoying spinach is simply to sauté it with garlic and olive oil.  It’s great for salads, soups, pasta sauces, dips, or flavoring a risotto.  For the latter, blanch the spinach in boiling water, wiz it in the blender and stir it into your risotto at or near the end of cooking.  Spinach is very high in water.  One pound of spinach will reduce to one cup cooked. 

 

CREAMY SPINACH SOUP

 

2 and a half ounces of Israeli couscous, (or the pasta of your choice)

1 small to medium onion, chopped

1 hot pepper, chopped, (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil as needed

1-2 cloves of garlic, chopped

1 pint chicken broth

1 pound baby spinach

4 oz. heavy cream

 

            Boil the pasta separately from the soup.  While the pasta is cooking sweat the onion and hot pepper with salt and pepper in the olive oil.  Do not brown the vegetables; merely soften them.  Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil.  Add the spinach in bunches until it all wilts.  Add the cream, simmer for a few minutes and add additional salt and pepper if need be.  Add the pasta and serve.

 

SPINACH ENCHILADAS WITH HOT PEPPER SAUCE

 

1 medium onion, chopped

2 jalapeno peppers, finely chopped

4 oz. mushrooms, finely chopped

Vegetable oil as needed

1 lb spinach

3 cloves garlic, chopped

Half teaspoon cumin

Half teaspoon coriander

Half teaspoon chili powder

Salt and pepper to taste

8 corn tortillas

Hot pepper sauce, (see recipe below)

1 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese

 

 

            Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Sauté onion, jalapenos, and mushrooms in vegetable oil until soft.  Add spinach in batches until it is all wilted adding more oil if needed.  Add garlic, cumin, coriander, chili powder, salt and pepper, and cook one minute more.  Set filling aside.  In a separate skillet heat some vegetable oil and then dip each tortilla, one at a time, in the oil for a few seconds until it is limp.  Drain it on paper towels, place some filling in it, roll it up, and then place in an oiled baking dish.  When all the enchiladas are filled, cover them with sauce, sprinkle with cheese, and then bake them until the cheese is melted, about ten minutes.

 

HOT PEPPER SAUCE

 

1 cup water
1/3 cup of red wine vinegar
1-3 hot peppers, depending on heat level desired.
1 large red bell pepper
Half a small onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon salt

 

            Chop the peppers, onion and garlic.  Bring all the ingredients to a boil and simmer for eight minutes.  Allow it to cool somewhat and then puree in a blender.  Eliminate the hot peppers if you want a mild sauce.  Use jalapenos for hot or habaneros for very hot. 

 

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