Leafy greens are so highly valued for their nutrients that nutritionists at the
World’s Healthiest Foods website recommend eating them once or
twice a week. But as Aliza Green points out in her book Starting with
Ingredients, spinach and its cousins have an image problem. “Many people find
spinach mundane, at best, and hardly a vegetable of romance,” writes Green. “In
spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that Popeye ate spinach to make him
strong, spinach is still a vegetable famously despised by children.”
the Middle East, however, spinach is treasured. Green noted that the Persians
cultivated spinach as early as the fourth century CE, and “the Arabs... showed
their high regard for this mild-mannered green by designating it ’the prince of
“Spinach is one of the favorite vegetables of the Mediterranean,”
writes Clifford Wright, author of Mediterranean Vegetables
. Spinach is
popular in North Africa, for example, in a hot and spicy sauce with garlic,
eggs, olive oil, tomato paste, red chili pepper and cumin. “In Andalusia
(Spain), you could have your spinach in the style of Cordoba, made with garlic,
onion, paprika, olive oil, vinegar and cinnamon.... In Almeria (also in Spain),
cooks... make an unforgettable pureed soup of spinach, potatoes, rice and salt
cod. In Anatolia (Turkey)...spinach is fried with olive oil and
onions.... In the Levant... spinach is cooked with bulgur pilaf.”
also called Swiss chard, another easy-to-find leafy vegetable in our markets, is
loved by Mediterranean cooks. Usually chefs separate the leaves from the stems
and use them in different preparations. “Typically, in the Mediterranean,
the stems are used in soups and the leaves are eaten as cooked greens or used
for stuffing,” writes Wright.
In Lebanon and Syria, people stuff chard
leaves like grape leaves, while in North Africa chard is used in ragouts because
it can cook for a long time without disintegrating.
When cooking greens,
I often use the “boil, rinse, squeeze method” that I learned at cooking school
in Paris. You boil the well washed greens briefly in boiling salted water in an
uncovered pot for a few minutes until they are just tender, rinse them
immediately with cold water and squeeze out the excess liquid so the greens are
This technique keeps the leaves bright green with a texture
that is not mushy. It works well not only for mild-flavored greens like spinach
and chard but for most other leafy vegetables as well, including wild greens and
Chinese cabbage. If you find radishes, kohlrabi, turnips or beets with
their leafy tops, you can cook their greens the same way. Tougher greens
with stronger flavors like kale and collard greens, which you can occasionally
find through specialty growers, take longer to cook than spinach. When
cooking them, taste them every few minutes until you like their
texture. Sorrel and meloukhia have different characteristics, and each
has special methods for preparing it. So does Belgian endive, although it can be
cooked like spinach.
Some distinguish between salad greens and cooking
greens, but this is not a rigid division. Greens like arugula (rocket) and
dandelion greens are used raw when young and cooked when they are
Mark Bittman, author of How to Cook Everything Vegetarian
recommends steaming spinach and chard because this technique is fast, efficient
and preserves much of the vegetable’s vitamin content. If you don’t have
a steamer, you can put the vegetables in a fold-up basket, a colander or a bowl
and set it in a pot with a cover. You add about 2.5 cm (an inch) of boiling
water to the pot, add the basket of vegetables, cover and cook them over
steadily bubbling water. Checking often is important so the vegetables
A technique that is good for small amounts of spinach is
cooking it in a covered pot with only the water adhering to its leaves after you
have rinsed them.
After the cooked greens are drained, they can be
sprinkled with vinaigrette or heated with butter or oil and seasonings such as
garlic, hot peppers or coriander. Baking them in cheese sauce as a gratin
is another favorite way to use them.
To make a salad from any kind of cooked
greens or from a mixture, Bittman recommends preparing them the simplest way
possible – in the Greek style. You cook the washed, trimmed greens until they
are tender, drain them, rinse them with cold water, squeeze them dry and chop
them. Before serving, you toss them with extra virgin olive oil, salt and
freshly ground black pepper, and accompany them with lemon halves.
even easier way to cook tender greens is to add them directly to a soup, stew or
sauce. Alain Braux, author of How to Lower Your Cholesterol with French Gourmet
, cooks sliced baby spinach briefly in his lentil soup flavored with onions
sauteed in olive oil, garlic, tomatoes and dried oregano.
cooking greens by the moist heat methods of steaming or boiling, some cooks, like
Domenica Marchetti, author of Rustic Italian
, saute their greens. To make kale
with chickpeas, she cooks thin slices of garlic in olive oil, adds the shredded
kale and sautes it, and then covers it and lets it wilt. The dish is finished
with chickpeas and chopped hot peppers.
Marchetti bakes her spinach pizza
with a topping of sauteed spinach layered over garlicky tomato sauce along with
fresh mozzarella cheese, red onion slices and halved black olives.
Europe and North America, the usual style is to cook spinach quickly so it is
just wilted, but this is a matter of taste. Bittman notes that you can cook it
longer for extra tenderness and adds, “long- and slow-cooked spinach in butter
Spinach, chard and other greens
should have deep green leaves without blemishes or yellowing
Greens can be kept in a plastic bag in the
refrigerator for about three days. I find they keep best if I leave the bag open
at one end or use a perforated bag. Some prefer to keep them in the
refrigerator’s crisper drawer.Washing greens:
Don’t simply rinse greens
in a colander; sand or bits of mud hiding between the leaves might not be rinsed
off. Instead, put the leaves in a large bowl of cold water. Lift the leaves from
the water and put them in a colander. If the water in the bowl is sandy, replace
it with new water and rinse the greens again. Repeat until the water is
clean.SPINACH WITH PINE NUTS
Makes 2 or 3 servings
A favorite in Italy,
this easy dish often includes raisins or currants in addition to the pine nuts.
For this dish, the leaves are not chopped.
✔ 700 gr. fresh spinach
(weight with stems) or 300 to 400 gr. packaged spinach leaves (6 to 8 cups)
Tbsp. vegetable oil or olive oil
✔ Salt and freshly ground pepper
✔ 1 Tbsp. dark
✔ 1 to 11⁄2 Tbsp. pine nuts Rinse spinach well; discard large
Add spinach to a saute pan with the water clinging to its leaves.
Cover and cook over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Uncover and cook, stirring
often, 1 or 2 minutes or until wilted. Drain in a colander, rinse with cold
water and drain well. Squeeze gently to remove excess water.
Heat oil in
same pan over medium heat. Add spinach, salt, pepper, raisins and pine nuts.
Stir for 2 or 3 minutes over medium heat and serve.SIMPLE BUTTERED
Makes 4 servings
This is a tasty, quick and easy way to prepare spinach
and illustrates the “boil, rinse, squeeze” cooking method. Instead of butter,
you can use extra virgin olive oil. If you like, cook 1 or 2 minced garlic
cloves in the butter or olive oil for a few seconds before adding the
✔ 900 gr. fresh spinach, large stems discarded, leaves rinsed
✔ Salt and freshly ground pepper
✔ 2 Tbsp. butter Add spinach to a
large saucepan of enough boiling salted water to cover the leaves.
uncovered over high heat for 3 minutes or until spinach is wilted and just
tender. Drain in a colander, rinse with cold water and drain
Squeeze spinach by handfuls to remove as much liquid as
possible. Chop spinach coarsely with a knife.
Melt butter in a
saucepan or skillet over medium heat. Add spinach and cook, stirring, for 2
minutes. Taste for salt, and season with pepper. Serve hot.Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning book Faye Levy’s
International Vegetable Cookbook.