I better admit it now: I am a big fan of spinach. I eat it pretty much daily, it is my favourite green leaf. I tried it once with houmous slathered thickly on a crust of warm, homemade whole-wheat bread. It became a lunch time favourite and I have not looked back since. It goes very well with lots of meals, raw or cooked (I prefer it raw). Luckily, spinach is easy and quick to grow once you have got it going.
Last year I planted under the cover of fleece in March the varieties ‘Barbados’ and ‘Emilia’ (February-August sowing times). I did likewise this year with this variety as well as planting in March ‘Samish’ spinach (March-August) which germinated pretty well too. These are really tasty varieties that I would recommend and should be ready to harvest within a matter of weeks once sown. The sudden heat has made a lot of mine bolt but they are still pickable and edible. I have just sown some more in my runner-bean trenches. When the leaves rot down, they are supposed to provide the beans with nitrogen and the beans in turn provide them with shade. They can be bought at Mr Fothergills, at least but you can find lots of popular spinach varieties everywhere.
Also, at the end of last year, in October we sowed some ‘Turaco’ (August-October) spinach indoors before planting it under the cover of fleece in a trench alongside some winter sown peas. This is a hardier type of spinach ideal for winter sowings. It has been ready to harvest since some time in April but have now bolted quite a lot now (still picking them, though). The leaves are big and dark green and deliciously prolific. It has been a joy to be able to harvest my own spinach again this spring and summer and not to pick up the guilty plastic bag of soggy green mush I usually slip into the trolley at the supermarket.
Sow spinach direct (or indoors before planting out), 2.5 cm / 1″ deep into prepared, fertile soil, allowing 30 cm / 1′ between rows. Keep well watered and fed as they continue to grow and sow some more every couple of weeks, like you would do for radishes or spring onions, to ensure a continuous crop. If you are sowing outdoors, early sowings will need the protection of a cloche, fleece or a cold-frame. Harvest the leaves when they are around 3cm or so above ground level, to encourage more growth and when each plant has at least four leaves growing.
Like lettuce, spinach can bolt but it does not taste as strong as poor lettuce does. However, when it bolts, the leaves become tiny and you have to pick quite a few to get a good bunch. Therefore, I would recommend adopting the successional sowing attitude and sowing perhaps a new bunch once a month or every couple of months, depending on how the weather is and what your needs are for fresh salad.
Other ‘spinach type leaves’ I have sown in the past include Swiss chard, a member of the same family, as well as most recently ‘Perpetual Leaf Beet Spinach’ purchased from the Real Seeds Company. I sowed these indoors and have recently planted them out between some purple sprouting broccoli with some radishes for extra companion planting points! They are doing quite well. I have not bothered sowing Swiss chard since I first planted it two years ago in August, I think. It has grown back every summer after dying off over winter and self-sown some babies every year. We have a lot this year, despite my mum digging some up for my sister’s fete this weekend. Swiss chard should only be eaten cooked otherwise it tastes gross. Treat it like you would kale or any other oriental green – rip of the chunky stem that tastes quite strong and rip the leaves into little pieces before chucking them in a stew, stir fry or on top of a pizza or wilting it down for a side dish.
Spinach is considered to have originated from the Persia, or Iran. It found its way to China during the 7th century when the king of Nepal sent is abroad as a gift. It was brought to Spain by the Moors around the 11th century and was known in England as the ‘Spanish vegetable’ for some time. Compared to most vegetables, spinach is rather new. A sweet historical story is that spinach was the favourite vegetable of Catherine de Medici, alive in the 16th century who left her home in Florence to marry the king of France. She brought her own cooks with her so that they could prepare her spinach dishes just the way she liked them. Now, if a dish is prepared on a bed of spinach, it is called ‘a la Florentine’.
Nutritionally, spinach is high in vitamin K, A, manganese, folate, magnesium, high levels of iron, copper vitamins B1, B2, B6, E, C, calcium, zinc and potassium. Additionally, it is a good source of dietary fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. This mixture of nutrients gives spinach superb status in the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory department. However, due to the high oxalate content found in spinach, people are often concerned about consuming too much of this leafy green raw. Oxalates are naturally occurring organic acids found in a wide selection of foods that can interfere with our absorbing of calcium or, ironically, iron, the major nutrient spinach is famous for (thin Popeye). Oxalic acid binds with calcium, making it unusable in our bodies. However, oxalic acids are broken down when heated so steamed or sautéed spinach and when spinach is cooked, nutrients like vitamins A and E, the protein found in the green vegetable and other nutritional benefits are easier for our bodies to absorb. Some of the other nutrients, like vitamin C, folate, potassium, and others, are more plentiful for our bodies when we eat the spinach raw. The iron content does not change whether you decide to eat it cooked or raw. You will absorb the iron if you eat something rich in vitamin C alongside it so consider pairing it with other vegetables and fruits. To conclude, varying the way we eat spinach, sometimes raw, sometimes cooked will give us the full range of nutritional benefits.
Try eating spinach raw with any salad or as a green in your humble lunch time sandwich. Another lunch time favourite of mine is to make a rice salad with spinach, lettuce and rocket, perhaps some avocado (which I hasten to add, I do not grow) or sauerkraut (which I have yet to try making myself). It is also delicious on top of a bowl of chili con carne, raw or cooked.
To cook it, add it in any dish like casserole, stew, curry etc. To cook it on its own, wilt the leaves of the spinach in a little butter over a medium heat in a frying pan. Serve with some additional falvourings if you would like: salt and pepper, chilli, ginger, soy sauce, sweet chilli sauce… Serve it alongside a baked potato with butter and cheese or swirl it in some rice with some cooked chickpeas.