I confess! I hated spinach as a child. Granny would nag me big time with her “Eat your spinach” and go on like an old gramophone record stuck in a groove. History has a way of repeating itself! In my 40s, I found myself stuck in the same golden words – “Eat your spinach” and thinking Oh God! I have become exactly like granny. However the difference was that the old lady loved the stuff and demolished it with glee while I disliked it. The XYZ generation of grandsons questioned me, “Why don’t you eat it?” That’s when I decided to give Popeye’s elixir a try and fell completely, hopelessly in love with it!
My granny always told me to make sure I wash the spinach seven times in clear, running water before cooking it. Now I don’t know whether this was simply a kitchen-tip or some dark culinary secret she inherited from her mother because it does have a basis in reality. There is nothing worse than a teeny weeny bit of grit spoiling your enjoyment of a hot, steaming, forkful of spinach. So I follow my grandmother’s advice to this day. Spinach is a pleasure to cook and a delight to eat. It’s also the most edible and tasty cure for constipation! In fact, in a certain dialect of an African language, it is called the ‘broom of the stomach’. However what always astonishes me is that however much of the stuff you bring home from the market, filling the kitchen-table as you cut it, watching that none of it spills into the kitchen-basin as you wash it, the moment you take the lid off that pan, it has miraculously shrunk. Did I say shrunk? Why! It’s almost disappeared!
From succulent pies, quiches and tarts of the Greek islands, to aromatic spiced dishes of palak-paneer and saag-aloo in India and delicate stir-fries of Thailand, its versatility belies its seemingly humble exterior. In Europe, its use was maintained long after the departure of the ‘Moors’ from the mainland by monks who grew it in monastery gardens and during World War-II. Also wine fortified with spinach was given to French soldiers to reduce the effects of hemorrhaging.
Of course, for children all over the world spinach is forever associated with ‘Popeye the sailor’ , the 1930’s cartoon character who popped entire tins of distinctly unappetizing green slime into his mouth each time his wife (bitter-half?) Olive got into trouble and screamed ‘Popeye, Popeye help me!!’ Sadly, the myth of spinach being an all-in-one, strength-giving tonic doesn’t quite survive close scrutiny. Apparently, when scientists first analysed spinach, they made a simple mathematical mistake and overestimated its iron content. An innocent slip of a decimal point meant they thought spinach had ten times more iron than it actually does!
But wait! Hold it! Before you complain that you have been conned all these years, don’t forget spinach like any leafy vegetable, is still a very good source of nutrition. The iron and calcium content is bound into the plant by oxalic acid and oxalic acid is what gives spinach its characteristic bitter taste. Spinach also contains carotenoids, which are similar to vitamin A and which scientists now believe may help guard against diseases of the eye, particularly cataracts.
In cuisine, its popularity today is as strong as ever particularly in the East. So how do you shop for this versatile green-veggie? Well, when buying spinach, look for small leaves with a nice vibrant green colour. Ensure the leaves squeak when rubbed together as that’s a sign of freshness. Avoid leaves which are limp and dull looking. When cooking, remove any damaged or discoloured leaves and drop into fresh, cold water. This will not only liven up the leaves but also remove the dirt and grit this low-growing plant can attract. As my grandmother used to say, wash it seven times (or at least repeatedly) to remove all the grit and dirt that may be on its leaves.
Shake the spinach dry, remove as much water as possible and then, pile into a saucepan along with a generous knob of butter. Clamp on a tight-fitting lid and steam, shaking the pan occasionally until the spinach has wilted and become tender. This should only take about five minutes so be careful not to overcook or else the result will be slimy leaves that no one will want to eat except perhaps, Popeye! This preparation keeps all the nutrition in spinach intact and with only a couple of additional ingredients, spinach can be the key to flavours from Madrid to Madras. Your options are unlimited – garlic, pasta, cheese, soy sauce, mushrooms, nutmeg. Your appetite too should be unlimited for this versatile veggie! Fresh and delicious, spinach is a storehouse of vitamins and minerals, so remember grandma’s advice and Eat Your Spinach!