Spinach – and there’s more!
Last month I introduced the common leafy green we call spinach and looked at some of its properties. It is one of the more misrepresented veggies. Kids are supposed to hate it, Popeye needed it and it is supposed to be the vegetarian’s best source of iron. The common name ‘spinach’ refers to a wide range of leafy green vegetables from the Middle East to Eastern Asia. All are healthy, easy to grow and if cooked well, delicious.
Last month we looked at the traditional and true spinach; Spinacia oleracea and the similar looking Beta vulgaris (Gator) known as Chard. These are the more popular forms and are my favourites (see below for recipes). This month we will look at some of the more unusual forms.
Malabar Spinach, Basella alba is an unusual plant from tropical Asia that is in the family Basellaceae. It is related to common spinach but not closely. As an ornamental garden plant it will hold its own with most tender perennials. It has thick fleshy leaves, deep green stems (red in the cultivar ‘Rubra’) and attractive violet flowers that develop into deep purple berries. The flowers resemble those of the Ledebourias.
Whereas traditional spinach prefers the cooler climates and is hard to grow well in warm regions, Malabar Spinach loves the warmer months. As it is from the tropics this is not surprising. It has wide acceptance through SE Asia where it is a staple in many diets. Some of its other names include; Ceylon Spinach, Climbing Spinach, Buffalo Spinach and Vine Spinach. It also has a number of country names: Surinam Spinach, Vietnam Spinach and Indian Spinach to name a few.
It has thick fleshy leaves that can be eaten raw, lightly cooked or used in more substantial dishes like curries and soups. The leaves are thick with a jelly like or mucilaginous texture which is loved by some and not by others. Mucilage is a gum produced by most plants and was one of the original, key ingredients of marshmallow. Although not as high in nutrients as true spinach it is still a good health food being very high in Vitamin A, Folate and Manganese and high in Vitamins C and B and Magnesium. Best of all it is fairly low in carbohydrates and fat.
The other main contender for the name of ‘spinach; is the NZ Spinach, Botany Greens or Warrigal Greens, Tetragonia tetragonoides. As the name implies it is a native to Australia and New Zealand and was our first ‘Bush Tucker’ plant. Indeed until Macdamias hit the world stage it was the only widely grown Australian food plant. It is used in much the same way as spinach, grows in similar conditions (but more tolerant of neglect) and is nearly as healthy. It has a minor problem in that very yuoung leaves can be eaten raw but older leaves need to be blanched for 15 to 30 secs to remove some of the oxalates that are present in high levels. The blanching water should be discarded.
Also known as Cook’s Cabbage it was eaten by many of the early sailors as a source of Vitamin C – cure for Scurvy. It was thought of as a tasty addition to what was probably a bland and salty diet. It is much lower in nutrients than its namesake but is still a good leafy green vegetable that is getting some popularity amongst modern chefs.
There are several other minor ‘Spinach’ plants like water spinach and the myriad of ‘Chinese Spinach’ types; Bo Choy, Pak Choy, Gailan and Choy Sum to name a few. These are all in the genus Brassica in the family, Brassicaceae. Closely related to the other spinach types and also very good for your health. Indeed I feel that we should have a Brassica in almost every meal as they are a great aid in rejuvenating key organs like the Liver and Kidneys – important for us wine lovers.
Spinach, along with brussel sprouts and pumpkin are three veggies that get a bad rap in movies, books, cartons etc. This is simply because they are cooked until all flavour and goodness are removed. I remember I was first learning to cook and I was told to boil the sprouts for 10 minutes and the spinach for 5 minutes. Now I steam it for no more than 2 minutes and the 5 minutes for the brussels. In fact there are very few green vegetables I would cook for more than 2 or 3 minutes. The term wilted spinach really describes what it should look like if cooked properly. Accept for Warrigal spinach all forms can be eaten raw in salads and sandwiches.
Cooking spinach and chard is so simple. Chop the leaves to size appropriate to the serving style then steam for 1 to 3 minutes depending on the volume and size of the pieces. Alternatively toss the chopped leaves in a hot wok with some olive oil, lemon zest and cracked pepper. Again only for 1 to 2 minutes.
Spinach is often used to give colour to soups and dips. A tasty soup is spinach and pumpkin: Chop up medium sized butternut pumpkin and put on the boil in about 2 litres of water. Cook until tender. Whist this is cooking chop up and lightly fry in splash of sesame oil 2 cloves of fresh garlic and 2 shallots (Ed’s Red) until garlic changes colour and shallot softens. Coarsley chop a large bunch of spinach (or chard) and add to pumpkin when it is almost breaking up. Cook for 1 minute then add the garlic and shallots and ½ cup of finely chopped chives. Cook for another minute then either put in a blender or use a stick blkend to make a smooth creamy soup. If at any stage the water levels drop just add a small amount of boiling water to bring back up to the preferred consistency. Serve with a dollop of cream.