Popeye was right. Spinach is mighty tasty and good for you, too. And in the world of super-food greens, this old favorite still has plenty to offer in flavor and nutrition.
When the famous cartoon sailor started munching spinach in 1929 as secret to bulging muscles, he was ahead of his time. Recent research shows that nitrates in spinach actually are energy boosters and help muscles perform more efficiently.
Many of us are part Popeye, especially in the West and Northeast where spinach consumption tends to be highest. According to the USDA, spinach has particular appeal in Asian households and for women over 40.
It’s also trending up with millennials as drink fodder. With mild flavor, low calories and high protein, spinach has become a favorite ingredient in fresh juices and smoothies.
It wasn’t always that way. After spiking in popularity (with Popeye’s help) during the 1940s, fresh spinach all but disappeared during the early 1970s. Spinach was mostly frozen and usually served creamed.
Then, fresh spinach salads became restaurant darlings. From 1970 to 2005, spinach consumption increased 12-fold, according to USDA statistics. On average, we eat more than 2.2 pounds a year.
Thanks to all those salads, the U.S. ranks as the world’s No. 2 spinach-growing nation, behind China. But it’s a distant second; the U.S. accounts for 3 percent of the world’s crop compared to 85 percent in China.
Today, Americans like their spinach fresh and crunchy. About three-quarters of all American spinach is eaten fresh, thanks in part to the popularity of triple-washed, pre-packaged cello bags of baby leaves.
As for Popeye, why did that comic character’s creators get their sailor man hooked on the green stuff? Blame it on a typo – or not.
According to Samuel Arbesman’s “The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date,” an 1870s scientist noted that cooked spinach contained 35 milligrams of iron per 1/2 cup serving. It should have been closer to 3.5 milligrams. That incorrect measurement stuck with spinach for many years.
But it was the vegetable’s high vitamin A content, not iron, that attracted cartoonist E.C. Segar to spinach, according to his biographers. Regardless, Popeye’s love of spinach significantly boosted sales.
While we now prefer it fresh instead of canned, spinach still can give muscles some pop. And our taste buds like it, too.
Warm Spinach Salad
From nutritionist and author Ellie Krieger. This comfort-food salad’s bold dressing has big flavor and meaty texture, thanks to mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes, plus a heady smokiness from Spanish smoked paprika. Together they match the taste experience that bacon typically provides in a more healthful way.
4 medium sun-dried tomatoes, not oil-packed (1/2 ounce)
1/2 cup boiling water
8 ounces baby spinach leaves (about 8 cups lightly packed)
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced into half-moons
3 tablespoons olive oil. divided
8 ounces mixed mushrooms, cleaned, stemmed and sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika (pimenton)
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1/4 teaspoon each salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place the sun-dried tomatoes in a medium bowl. Pour the boiling water over them, then allow them to soak for 15 minutes. Drain and reserve the soaking liquid, then thinly slice the sun-dried tomatoes.
Toss the spinach and red onion together in a large bowl. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the mushrooms and stir to coat; cook about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until their moisture has evaporated and they are well browned. Stir in the rehydrated sun-dried tomatoes, garlic and smoked paprika; cook 1 minute. Reduce the heat to low, then stir in the reserved sun-dried tomato soaking liquid, vinegar, salt and pepper and remaining 2 tablespoons oil.
Pour the warm mushroom mixture over the spinach and onion in the bowl; toss well until the spinach is well coated and slightly wilted. Taste, and add salt as needed. Serve right away.
Per serving: 140 calories, 4 g protein, 8 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, (2 g saturated), 0 mg cholesterol, 220 mg sodium, 3 g fiber, 3 g sugar
Yield: 4 servings.
Portuguese Spinach and White Bean Soup
From the Detroit Free Press.
1 cup chopped onion
2 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium red or yellow bell pepper
1 bay leaf
Pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon ground fennel
1 medium potato, peeled
2 tablespoons dry sherry
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
8 ounces fresh or frozen chopped leaf spinach
2 cups low-sodium vegetable stock
1 (15.5-ounce) can no-salt-added cannellini beans, undrained
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
In soup pot, saute the onions and garlic in the olive oil, stirring often, for about 5 minutes or until the onions soften. While the onions saute, chop the bell pepper.
Add the bay leaf, salt, fennel and bell pepper to the pot, and continue to cook for about 5 minutes, stirring regularly. Cube the potato and add to the pot along with the sherry, lemon juice, greens and stock. Cover and simmer for 20-25 minutes until the potatoes and greens are tender.
Stir in the beans and gently reheat. Add black pepper to taste.
Per cup: 127 calories (25 percent from fat), 4 g fat (1 g saturated), 22 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein, 122 mg sodium, 0 mg cholesterol, 5 g fiber.
Yield: 8 to 9 cups