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Spinach adds tangy-sweet flavor, nutrition to variety of meals

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With the return of cool winter weather to our region, we can at last enjoy the beauty and pleasure of the season’s new crop of spinach. Yes, kale and collards are good for you, but so is spinach, and spinach is tender and tastes tangy-sweet.

This leafy green is a nutritional powerhouse. Just a half cup of steamed spinach gives us 2 grams of dietary fiber, from 80 to 100% of our daily requirement of vitamin A, 32% of our folic acid, 40% of iron if you’re male and 20% if you’re female, plus needed helpings of magnesium, potassium and calcium. And that’s in just a half cup!

Spinach delivers a nice tangy flavor, making it good for both salads and cooked dishes. It has an amazing ability to blend well with a wide range of other kitchen ingredients, especially curry spices, eggs, anchovies, butter, cheese, garlic, mushrooms, olive oil, onions, tomatoes, vinegar, yogurt and nutmeg.

Old-fashioned savoy spinach has large crinkled leaves and is usually sold in bunches. They’re best cooked.

Asian types, often called baby spinach, are smaller-leaved, oval in shape, thinner and more tender and sweeter. They’re generally sold as individual leaves, by weight, and are the best for salads. At some markets, you may see a vegetable called New Zealand spinach, which is a very poor substitute for real spinach.

When buying either savoy or Asian spinach, make sure the leaves are fresh, with no limpness or yellowing. Check the cut end of the leaf stem. It should look freshly cut, not blackened.

Spinach is native to Iran, where the species still grows wild. It went east to China, probably along the old Silk Road, and west to Arabia.

Spinach traveled to Spain with the Moorish invasion and on to the rest of Europe. The name comes from the Old Persian “aspanakh.” The root “span” has entered Greek in the names of dishes like spanakopita.

You can eat savoy spinach with the stems attached, but it’s coarse that way. It doesn’t take long to strip the tender leafy parts from the stems. Plunge them in cold water and wash them thoroughly.

If you’re in a hurry, toss the leaves into a steamer and steam them until they’re collapsed. Then turn them into a warm bowl, give them a squeeze of half a lemon and maybe a pinch of salt, toss and serve. They don’t need a lot of gussying up.

Or gussy them up. Make spinach with gremolata. That means tossing steamed spinach with a few tablespoonfuls of a mixture of finely minced garlic, lemon zest and finely chopped parsley.

Here’s a simple vegetarian dish: in a Dutch oven, sauté a diced small onion, then add a bunch of clean, de-stemmed spinach and pour a half cup of rice over that. Add a half cup of diced tomato, a clove of finely chopped garlic and salt and pepper to taste.

Finally, add a cup of hot water, cover and simmer for an hour. It’ll serve three as a side dish.

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A soggy pie crust under your quiche is unpleasant, so it pays to prebake the crust.

Spinach and Mushroom Quiche

Serves 6

— For the quiche liquid:

3 eggs

1 cup milk

½ cup heavy cream

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

— Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

— For the quiche filling:

2 teaspoons olive oil

10 crimini, button or shiitake mushrooms, sliced

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

1 shallot, finely chopped

10 ounces of savoy spinach de-stemmed, rinsed, drained and coarsely chopped

— Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

1 ½ cups grated Jarlsberg, Fontina or Gruyere cheese

1 pre-baked pie crust

For quiche liquid: Using a whisk, beat the eggs in a large bowl until light and well blended. Add the milk, heavy cream, nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste. Whisk well to combine.

For quiche filling: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the mushrooms, garlic, shallot and spinach. Sprinkle evenly with salt and pepper.

Cover and cook for about 2 minutes. Using tongs, toss the spinach to coat it with oil. Continue cooking, uncovered, for two minutes, stirring occasionally, until the spinach is just wilted.

Turn this mixture into a colander set in a bowl and press out any excess liquid using the back of a large spoon.

Line a cookie sheet with foil to catch any drips and set the prebaked crust in its pie pan on the sheet. Sprinkle one cup of the cheese evenly on the crust. Arrange the spinach-mushroom mixture evenly on top of the cheese, then sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top.

Slowly pour the quiche liquid over the vegetables. Bake the quiche in a 350-degree oven for one hour, until the top is golden brown and the center is just set. The quiche will be puffy when you first remove it from the oven, then it will flatten within 10 minutes or so. Don’t be alarmed when it does. Let stand for at least 15 minutes before cutting. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net.

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