The Persian Vegetable
Spinach originally grew along the Tigris in antiquated Arabia. From there it was introduced thru India and Nepal, ending up as a delicacy in ancient China. In the east it was known as the “Persian vegetable”.
A relatively late comer to Europe, spinach was brought to Sicily during the early Middle Ages. By the 12th century it was part of Spanish cuisine and two centuries later was being used enthusiastically in French and English cooking.
Spinach first made its way into Italy from the Middle East, and it became a favorite of wealthy Italian Renaissance families, like the Medici’s of Florence. It was definitely the favorite vegetable of Catherine de’Medici, when she left Florence to marry the future French king.
Because of her, many seafood and egg dishes presented on a bed of spinach were given the Florentine name in French cuisine. These were usually covered with grated cheese and cooked au gratin. Any other sauté or stew into which spinach found its way could also be so designated.
In classic French cooking, spinach was a blessing to so many different types of preparations, and, blended so well in many masterpiece recipes. Most other vegetables imposed their own tastes upon the dish.
Cultivation of spinach in the United States began around 1806. Early 19th century cooks customarily boiled it into a flavorless gray-green mush. Today, its rapid growth, mild flavor and tender texture (when briefly cooked!) make spinach the most popular leaf vegetable, next to lettuce.
Spinach is one of the most nutritious vegetables around, brimming with amazing amounts of minerals and vitamins. One cup of cooked spinach is a great source of magnesium, folate, calcium and iron plus providing vitamins K, A, E, C and a couple of B’s.
Spinach is an excellent source of dietary fiber as well as of phenolic antioxidants, which help reduce potential cancer causing damage to our DNA. It is also rich in beta carotene whose benefits are enhanced when the spinach is cooked in a small amount of fat, like olive oil. Also consuming spinach with orange juice or tomatoes helps the absorption of iron.
There is nothing like the tender taste of fresh raw spinach in a salad but the advantage of briefly cooking spinach is intriguing. That cup of cooked spinach has nearly three times the fiber, folate, iron, magnesium and beta carotene than two cups of raw. Of course that one cup of cooked spinach started out as about eight cups raw green.
The accompanying recipe is a delightful use of cooked spinach with chicken and a simple, killer sauce.
Photo by Jon Russo
Chicken Breasts with Spinach, Leek, and Saffron Sauce
½ cup dry white wine
1/8 teaspoon saffron treads
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Six 5 to 7 oz. boneless skin-on chicken breasts
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 large leeks, white and tender green parts only, halved lengthwise and sliced
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
1 ½ cup chicken stock
1 bay leaf
½ cup heavy cream
4 cups packed spinach leaves
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Warm the wine in the microwave and crumble in the saffron. Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper, heat the olive oil and sear the breasts until the skin is browned and crisp. Turn and cook for 4 minutes longer. Finish cooking the breasts in a 325 degree oven. Melt the butter in the same pan and add the leeks. Cook until softened and add the garlic until golden. Add chicken stock, bay leaf, wine and saffron, bringing to a simmer. Add the cream to skillet and simmer over moderate heat until thickened then stir in the mustard. Discard bay leaf, add spinach to skillet until slightly wilted. Spoon the spinach and leeks onto plates and top with the chicken breasts and sauce.