So when producers started packaging clean, ready-to-use baby leaves in cellophane bags a few years ago, I made a vow to eat at least a generous handful every day.
There are loads of good things in spinach, so I'm not sure which of its many attributes give me such a boost. It could be its abundance of antioxidants (beta carotene and lutein).
Or perhaps it's the folic acid and vitamins (C, K and thiamine). Maybe the minerals are magic: iron, calcium, potassium and zinc.
Gail Frank, a professor of nutrition at California State University, Long Beach, describes spinach as "nutrient dense" because of its array of nutrients, adding that it is also high in fiber and low in calories. She says that its appeal doesn't stop there. Parts of the appeal, she says, are its texture and its taste.
"Spinach is crisp, and its chewing factor is very appealing," Frank says. "And the taste is light and clean. The chlorophyll is refreshing."
And I agree. Spinach is a perfect package. So I eat it raw in salads and sandwiches, substituting it for less-interesting lettuce.
Or, I cook up the contents of an entire 10-ounce bag of those spade-shaped baby leaves, then toss with a little extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. It can be eaten as is, or used as a bed underneath grilled fish, pork or chicken.
Cooking it is quick and easy, once you get over the somewhat disappointing fact that you start out with a mountain and end up with a hill.
And that cooking can reduce vitamin content. According to Frank, water-soluble vitamins (vitamin C and B's) are reduced and can be destroyed by water, heat or light.
"The more intense any of these are, the more the loss. So, cook it quick and store it in dark containers. And eat it as soon after purchase as possible," she says.
So, quickly saute it in a little olive oil in a deep skillet, stir-fried on medium-high heat until limp (but still bright green). Or microwave it:
Place it in a large, microwave-safe bowl (if leaves are dry, sprinkle with a tiny bit of water); cover with plastic wrap (leaving a small portion on one side open a smidgen); microwave on high power until just barely limp (usually about 2 to 3 minutes, depending on volume).
Here are 10 delectable things to make with fresh baby spinach: 1. Popeye pasta
Cook 8 ounces fusilli pasta or gemelli pasta according to package directions; drain.
In large, deep skillet, heat 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil on medium heat. Add 2 cloves garlic (minced) and 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Cook, stirring frequently, about 1 minute (do not brown).
Increase heat to medium high. Add a 10-ounce bag of baby spinach; stir-fry about 2 to 3 minutes or until limp. Remove from heat.
In medium bowl combine 1-1/2 tablespoons each of extra-virgin olive oil and fresh lemon juice; stir in 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese, and 1-1/2 cups grape tomatoes (halved).
Add olive oil-lemon juice mixture and pasta to spinach. Toss and season with salt and pepper as needed. 2. Tiptop omelets
Finely diced ham combined with sauteed spinach is an irresistible filling for omelets.
Heat 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil in large, deep skillet on medium-high heat. Add a 10-ounce bag baby spinach. Cook, stirring frequently, until just barely wilted.
Drain in colander placed in sink, pressing lightly with back of spoon.
Return skillet to heat and add 1/2 cup finely diced ham. Lightly brown, tossing frequently, about 1 minute.
Remove from heat; stir in spinach and, if desired, 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese.
Use to fill 4 to 5 omelets. 3. World's easiest salad
This may sound too good to be true.
Toss chilled fresh baby spinach with enough really good extra-virgin olive oil to lightly coat leaves. Season to taste with coarse salt, such as kosher salt.
Serve as is, or top with shavings of Parmesan cheese and accompany each serving with a wedge of fresh lemon or lime for optional squeezing (to provide a sour edge).
For variety, use half baby spinach leaves and half arugula, then top salad with apple slices and shavings of Parmesan.
4. Green in spuds
Spinach tastes incredible in mashed potatoes. Cook 2 pounds peeled potatoes (either Yukon gold or russet) in boiling water until fork tender.
Meanwhile heat 1/2 cup whipping cream or milk and 2 tablespoons butter in medium saucepan to simmer; cover and set aside.
Drain potatoes. Add 4 cups (about 4 ounces) baby spinach to milk mixture; toss, cover and let sit 1 minute; add to potatoes; mash with potato masher. Add salt and pepper to taste. 5. Asian-style stir-fry
Heat wok on high heat; add 2 teaspoons vegetable oil (or canola oil) and heat until near smoking.
Add 16 ounces baby spinach, 2 tablespoons rice wine, sake or dry sherry, 1 tablespoon minced garlic, 1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger and 3/4 teaspoon salt.
Toss until spinach wilts, about 2 minutes (adapted from "Spices of Life" by Nina Simonds, Knopf, $35). 6. Chez spinach soup
Alice Waters, the mother of California cuisine, makes this mouthwatering soup.
In a large pot, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil on medium heat. Add 1 thinly sliced onion; 1 large, thinly sliced garlic clove; and 1 small carrot (peeled, finely diced). Cover and reduce heat to low; slowly cook until onion is translucent and soft.
Add 4 cups chicken broth and increase heat to high. Bring to boil and reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer 15 minutes.
Add 1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves and 18 ounces fresh baby spinach. Stir and push spinach down into broth. Turn off heat, cover and let soup sit 5 minutes.
Puree in small batches in food processor fitted with metal blade or in blender (use caution with blender - hold lid in place with potholder).
In small bowl, stir 1 tablespoon minced fresh tarragon with 2 tablespoons creme franche or sour cream.
Ladle soup into 6 bowls. Garnish each with teaspoon of creme franche mixture (adapted from "Chez Panisse Vegetables" by Alice Waters, HarperCollins, $35). 7. Braised and beaned
Garlicky spinach and creamy cannellini beans are great piled on toasted country bread.
Start by heating 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil in large, deep skillet on medium-high heat. Add half a medium onion (chopped); cook until onion starts to soften, about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add 2 large cloves garlic (minced) and cook about 45 seconds. Add a 10-ounce bag baby spinach. Cook until wilted, stirring frequently, about 3 minutes.
Add a 15- or 16-ounce can cannellini beans (with juice). Heat, stirring occasionally. You want it a little juicy, so add 1-2 tablespoons water (or chicken broth or vegetable broth) if necessary - canned beans vary in the amount of liquid they contain. Taste and add salt and/or pepper as needed.
Toast 4 thick slices of country bread (such as ciabatta); place each on dinner plate. Cut large peeled garlic clove in half and rub cut edge on toast. Top with spinach-bean mixture.
Sprinkle with a little chopped Italian parsley. Drizzle with a little extra-virgin olive oil and top with shaved Parmesan cheese (adapted from "Vegetarian Suppers" by Deborah Madison, Broadway, $27.50). 8. Decadent starter
A spinach gratin topped with four cheeses makes an impressive side dish with salmon or grilled chicken, but I also like to serve it as an appetizer. Guests scoop a spoonful onto a thinly sliced baguette.
To make it, start by preheating oven to 350 degrees and lightly greasing a 12-inch oval gratin pan or an 11x7-inch baking dish with butter.
In medium bowl, combine a medium onion (finely chopped), 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese, 1/2 cup grated Edam cheese, 1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese, 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill, 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg. Toss.
Add 2 tablespoons fresh bread crumbs and 1 egg yolk; toss and set aside.
In large pot or Dutch oven, heat 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil over medium-high heat. Add two 10-ounce bags fresh baby spinach and saute until wilted and juices evaporate, about 3 minutes. Transfer to colander in sink and drain, pushing out excess liquid with back of spoon.
Place spinach in prepared pan (it will make a thin layer) and top with onion mixture. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese.
Bake until heated through, about 20 minutes. Heat broiler and broil about 8 inches from broiler element until cheese is golden brown on top, about 2 minutes; watch closely to prevent burning. 9. Spinach pesto
Enjoy this pesto on hot pasta, or to garnish vegetable soup. It is delicious tossed with warm green beans or zucchini. A small amount of tofu is used to produce creaminess and reduce the amount of oil.
In a food processor fitted with metal blade, process 1/2 cup walnuts until chopped. Add 2 cups coarsely chopped baby spinach, 8 large fresh basil leaves, 1 medium clove peeled garlic; process until finely chopped. Add 1 tablespoon silken tofu, 1/4 cup grated Parmesan; pulse to blend.
With motor running, add 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil in thin stream. Add salt and pepper to taste (adapted from "12 Best Foods Cookbook" by Dana Jacobi, Rodale, $21.95). 10. Leg with spinach
Lamb and spinach make a beautiful marriage of flavors. Boned leg of lamb is delicious stuffed with a mixture of baby spinach leaves, garlic, fennel, feta and mint (see recipe).
According to Patty Yu, surveillance epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there has been a 24 percent increase of reported outbreaks of food-borne illnesses from 1970 to 1997.
Although most packages of baby spinach are labeled "triple washed," the government still warns consumers to wash all produce in cold water.
After washing spinach, make sure it is as dry as possible before sauteing. Pat dry with paper towels. Leg of lamb stuffed with spinach and feta 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil,
plus more for brushing lamb
1 fresh fennel bulb, trimmed
(fronds and tender stalks
reserved), halved, thinly
1-1/2 cups thinly sliced green
onions, including most of
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped
garlic, plus 2 garlic cloves, cut
in fourths, see Note
1-1/2 cups coarsely chopped
baby spinach leaves
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, finely
ground, see Note Freshly ground black pepper to
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
3-1/2- to 4-pound half leg of
lamb (shank half), some fat
left on, shank bone left in, hip
end of bone removed, see
1 teaspoon dried oregano,
Salt to taste
1/2 cup dry white wine, plus
more if needed
1/2 cup chopped reserved
fennel fronds plus tender
stalks, or fresh dill
1. In large skillet, heat 1/3 cup oil and cook fennel bulb slices on medium heat until almost tender, about 3 minutes. Add green onions and chopped garlic; cook 2 minutes. Add spinach and cook, stirring, until wilted.
2. Remove from heat and stir in fennel seeds and pepper. Place in colander in sink and press out excess liquid with back of spoon. Return to skillet and cool. Stir in mint.
3. Make 8 small slits randomly in lamb and insert garlic fourths.
4. Place half of spinach mixture in small bowl. Add cheese to spinach remaining in skillet; taste and adjust seasoning as needed, then use to stuff lamb. Add small portion of reserved spinach if needed to fully stuff lamb.
5. Close opening with wooden toothpicks. Rub lamb all over with remaining spinach mixture in bowl. Cover and refrigerate 3 hours or overnight.
6. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
7. Scrape greens off lamb and reserve. Brush lamb with oil and sprinkle with oregano, salt and pepper. Place lamb in shallow roasting pan (Pyrex or clay pan preferred).
8. Roast 20 minutes in preheated oven.
9. Meanwhile, in medium saucepan, bring wine to boil on high heat, reduce heat to low and simmer 1 minute. Add reserved spinach and set aside.
10. Pour wine-spinach mixture over lamb and roast 5 minutes more.
11. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. Roast lamb, basting frequently with pan juices, adding a little more wine to pan if necessary, for about 30 minutes longer, or until an instant-read thermometer reads 135 degrees.
12. Remove lamb from oven and sprinkle with chopped fennel or dill. Cover with aluminum foil and let rest 15 minutes.
13. Carve lamb and serve, passing pan juices in bowl or sauceboat.
14. Makes about 6 servings.
NOTE: Grind fennel seed in an electric spice grinder or place in heavy plastic bag and pound with mallet.
A fully boned, butterflied leg of lamb may be substituted for the partially boned leg of lamb. In that case, omit Step 2 (the insertion of garlic fourths). Spread stuffing over inside of butterflied lamb and roll it up. Tie with cotton string.
- adapted from "The Foods of the Greek Islands:
Cooking and Culture at the Crossroads of
the Mediterranean" by Aglaia Kremezi
(Houghton Mifflin, $37.50)