Spinach Saves the Day
No sooner had I started wondering what I should make for dinner last night did I come across the weekly seasonal food feature in New York magazine. The highlight? Overwintered Spinach; or, spinach that was planted in the cool weather and developed a sweet tinge as a result of enduring the winter frost. With the year-round spinach-producing capabilities of California and the plentiful supply of bagged baby spinach it churns out, we tend to forget that fresh spinach season for most of the country is March through May… right now! The article’s accompanying easy recipe for Sauteed Spinach and Ramps with Toasted Lentils featured uber-seasonal ramps (yes, those same wild leeks I used in my fiddlehead fern saute last week…in high season now!) coupled with Indian-esque staples I tend to always have on hand. Um… how do you say ‘yum’ in Hindi?
As for the Spinach? Well, I always have at least a bunch (or bag) of it in the fridge as a key standby ingredient for a number of my favorite healthy, 30-minute-or-less, weeknight dinner recipes. At least once a week in our house, spinach saves the day (or at least, dinner).
My Favorite Spinach Standbys
Topping the list is my trusty old recipe for Yellow Lentils with Spinach and Ginger, by far the most stained and sticky page from my dog-eared copy of the Mayo Clinic Cookbook. I love this recipe for its bright and cheery appearance, its subtle and earthy flavor profile and the sheer lack of prep work it requires. Just mince a shallot (1/2 a red onion makes a fine substitute), measure a few pantry items and get the dish cooking within 5 minutes. While the lentils are cooking (12 minutes!), you can toast up the sesame seeds and chop some cilantro for garnish. In 30 minutes or less, you’ve got a 240-calorie, high-protein (14g), high fiber (9g!) entree that’s moderate in net carbohydrate (36g total minus 9g fiber=27g, or about 2 diabetic exchanges). I enjoy this dish on its own, but in the wintertime when I’m looking for a bit more substance, I might pair it with a cooked quinoa, rice or millet for a little extra stick-to-my-ribness. Last night, it followed a steamed artichoke appetizer dipped in a quickie chipotle aioli... and hit the spot.
When I’m looking for something a bit more heavily seasoned, I beg my husband to make us his version of Chana Saag–chickpeas with spinach. It takes a bit longer to prepare (which is why I try to offload cooking it onto him), but delivers a very similar nutritional profile: 235 calories, 10g protein, 8g fiber and 23g of net carbohydrate (32g minus 8g of fiber)… that is, before you count in the rice you’re almost certainly going to want to pair it with.
Popeye Had it Right
Spinach ranks high on the ANDI index with a score of 799 (out of 1,000), meaning that it’s among the most nutrient-dense foods one could eat. It’s a ridiculously excellent source of bone-building and blood-clot enabling Vitamin K, immunity-enhancing and night vision-enabling Vitamin A (in the form of beta carotene), blood cell and DNA-replication-enabling folate, bone-building and healthy blood pressure-maintaning magnesium. 1 cup of these magic green leaves cooked contains over 1000% of the daily value for Vitamin K, 365% of the daily value for Vitamin A, 65% of the daily value for folate, and over 35% of your daily magnesium needs… for just 40 calories. Spinach also contains good amounts of other B-vitamins, Vitamin C (30% of the daily value) and potassium, but I fear I’m embarassing it by going on and on about its nutritional merits. I should also mention that spinach contains high levels of various other compounds–such as several different carotenoids and flavonoids–whose consumption have been associated with a protective effect against degenerative eye diseases and certain types of cancer (particularly prostate and ovarian).
Heaps of praise notwithstanding: while spinach is often cited as a good source of both calcium and iron, its high content of these two nutrients belies the fact that neither of them is particularly bioavailable. Because of spinach’s high amount of natural compounds called phytates and oxalates that bind to minerals in food and prevent them from being digested, the calcium in spinach is very poorly absorbed (only about 5% of its calcium content is absorbed, compared to about 60% for other leafy sources of calcium like kale, collards and broccoli that contain much lower levels of oxalate). Similarly, only about 2% of spinach’s iron content is absorbed in our digestive tract, compared to, say, about 20% from red meat, though you can enhance your absorption of its iron somewhat by pairing your spinach with vitamin-C rich foods, like a generous squeeze of lemon juice, tomatoes or red peppers… or a piece of meat, poultry or fish.
Spinach isn’t for Everybody: The Low-Oxalate Diet for Kidney Stones
One final nutritional note on spinach pertains to my unlucky friends who have had the displeasure of experiencing kidney stones. Most–but not all–kidney stones are made from calcium oxalate, and these result from a variety of factors related to one’s urine chemistry and genetic susceptibility. In predisposed individuals, high levels of oxalate present in low levels of urine (from inadequate fluid intake) can cause this natural compound to precipitate with calcium and form a stone. The diet recommended to prevent the recurrence of such stones is one that’s (1) high in fluids (2-3 liters per day); (2) moderate in protein (<80g/day… so trash your Atkins diet at once!); (3) moderate in sodium (<2,ooomg/day); (4) high in calcium (~1,200mg/day, or 4 servings of calcium-rich foods); and (5) restricted in high-oxalate foods, such as spinach (and most dark leafy greens), rhubarb, beets, soy, chocolate, strawberries, tea, wheat bran, nuts and seeds. Some research also suggests that taking a calcium supplement with meals (200-400mg) may help prevent calcium oxalate stones if dietary calcium is inadequate. Lastly, if you’re prone to kidney stones, avoid taking high-dose Vitamin C supplements (1,000mg/day or more), as excess vitamin C is converted to oxalate.Did you like this? If so, please bookmark it, RSS feed.