Spinach is native to central and southwestern Asia, and is thought to have originated in ancient Persia (modern day Iran). From there it travelled to India and China, where it was called the “Persian vegetable,” and eventually to Sicily, Spain and other parts of the Arab Mediterranean. It reached Germany by the 13th century, and England and France by the 14th, where it quickly gained popularity because it appeared in early spring when vegetables were scarce. In 1533, Italian noblewoman Catherine de’Medici became Queen of France. She was so enamored of spinach that she requested it at every meal, and as a result dishes made with spinach came to be called Florentine after the city of Catherine’s birth.
The French Queen was not the only one addicted to spinach. It was the favored vegetable of Popeye the Sailor Man, an iconic American cartoon character created in the 1930’s. When confronted with his arch nemesis, Bluto, Popeye would immediately burst open and consume a can of spinach. His bicepts would bulge and Bluto would be vanquished, supposedly because of the strength Popeye drew from the high iron content of the spinach. While spinach does contain iron, it may not be as much as Popeye imagined. According to some reports, German scientist Emil von Wolff misplaced a decimal point in an 1870 measurement of the iron content of spinach, resulting in a reported iron content ten times higher that it should have been, a mistake that was not discovered until the 1930s.
When buying spinach look for medium to dark green leaves that appear fresh and without any signs of decay. And when deciding how much to buy, keep in mind that spinach has a high water content and will reduce in size substantially when cooked. Do not wash spinach until you are ready to cook it because moisture will encourage spoilage. It will keep, loosely packed in a sealed plastic bag and refrigerated, for about four days.
Regular, mature spinach is notoriously sandy. You must rinse the spinach in several changes of cold water to make sure all traces of grit are removed. Also, the stems of regular spinach are often woody and tasteless, so they should be torn off and discarded. Using “baby spinach,” a term used to describe spinach that has been harvested at an early growth stage (usually between 15 and 35 days after planting) can be a time-saver, and the small leaves have a more tender texture and sweeter taste than mature spinach. Baby spinach often is preferred for salads, and it is called for in the sautes that follow, but if you can’t find baby spinach, regular spinach may be substituted. Clean it, tear the leaves into bite-size pieces and proceed with the recipe as directed. The cooking time may have to be increased by a few minutes.
Sauteeing is a simple and healthy way to cook spinach since, unlike boiling, it does not leach out the nutrients. Steaming and microwaving are also good choices. And the saute could not be easier. Wash two pounds of baby spinach (enough for four people) under cold running water and saute it in only the water left clinging to its leaves for 2 to 3 minutes, tossing, until it’s just wilted and bright green, 2 to 3 minutes. Season it with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste and, if you like, throw in a pat of butter.