The cartoon sailor downed a can of spinach any time he needed quick energy, but that habit wasn’t just for comic relief. Spinach has the healthy benefits of other green leafy vegetables, and it’s one of the most nutrient-dense foods around. It’s packed with vitamins K, C, B2 and E, and minerals, including calcium and iron.
Spinach plants grow best in well-draining, sandy loam and prefers a neutral to slightly alkaline soil. Mix plenty of organic matter into the soil before planting. Spinach loves water, so make sure not to let your plants dry out too much between watering. Side dress with a high-nitrogen fertilizer a couple of times through the growing season.
A cool weather plant, spinach will survive light frosts, but varieties like the New Zealand Heirloom plant are more tolerant of heat and will not bolt (produce seed) or wilt or turn yellow as the summer temps rise, as some varieties will. The New Zealand heirloom is a light green tender leaf variety with a delicate flavor.
Harvest spinach as soon as the tender young leaves are a couple inches long, up to full-size at 6 to 8 inches in length. The New Zealand Heirloom variety will continue to produce new leaves throughout the summer, if you harvest continually.
The Bloomsdale Heirloom Spinach variety produces very deep, dark green leaves that are distinctly curly and have a rich, buttery flavor. Bloomsdale is also slow to bolt but it prefers the cooler temps of spring and fall. This plant can be harvested a few leaves at a time, or the entire top can be cut off about an inch above the crown, and it will keep producing new growth.
Spinach leaves can bruise easily, so it’s best to harvest by cutting leaves with a sharp knife. For fresh spinach consumption, choose young leaves. They’re excellent served raw in tossed salads, or wilted with hot bacon-vinegar dressing. Raw spinach can also be used as an edible garnish layer underneath a hot entrée or side dish.
Cooking spinach is fast and easy. It can be stir-fried, steamed in the microwave or boiled on the stovetop and served plain, with butter, with a splash of vinegar, or with a savory cream sauce. Spinach has a robust flavor that is more pronounced when cooked, and it can be enhance by garlic, cardamom, and smoky flavors. Leaves don’t need to be cut before cooking as they wilt and cook down in size dramatically, so plan accordingly to ensure each diner has a full portion size.
Rinse spinach leaves thoroughly just before preparing to clean off all the sand that gets trapped in the curls of the leaves. Spinach will keep in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to a week but it’s best to not wash it beforehand. Traditional methods of canning and freezing apply for all varieties of spinach. However, the most nutrient benefit comes from eating the leaves raw and uncooked.