Spinach has dominated my day so far - in a good way. A few of us talked about it during class this morning at Alotapilates; we bought some from an overflowing box just picked and delivered from the Hjele farm to Local D’Lish this morning which we ate as a salad with brunch; and it will be on our table tomorrow at lunch, wilted and stuffed into crepes with sautéed cremini mushrooms and a little bit of locally made havarti from Morning Star Farm in Cokato, MN.
Spinach is an easy entry into eating dark leafy green vegetables since it is mild tasting and delicious, whether served raw or lightly cooked. In the spring, it is usually one of the first local greens to make an appearance at the markets since it prefers cool growing conditions and doesn't mind spring rains.
For being so delicate, spinach packs a big nutritional punch: it is extremely high in vitamins A, K, C folic acid and B2, as well as the minerals manganese, magnesium, calcium (yes, really!) and iron. Spinach is also loaded with antioxident-rich phytochemicals that are especially good for eye health - age related macular degeneration in particular and cancer protection, especially stomach, skin and breast cancers.
In order to get the most nutritional benefit out of your beautiful, local spinach, eat it both raw and cooked to maximize vitamin absorption and phytochemical benefits (raw to get the vitamins, minerals and enzymes; cooked to get the phytochemicals). Either way, be sure to prepare it with a good healthy fat, such as cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil and raw almonds or walnuts in a salad, or by cooking it in a little coconut oil or organic butter to access the fat-soluble nutrients.
Buy fresh spinach when it looks bright green and fresh; store it loosely packed in a sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator where it should last for about four days. Wash fresh spinach by swishing in a bowl of cold water to removed trapped sand particles and dry in salad spinner or by wrapping in clean cotton towel and refrigerated until ready to use that day.
Visit Mark Bittman’s article from last week’s NYTimes Magazine to find a whole matrix of recipes for eating cooked spinach, or try this salad below which totally simple and truly delicious.
Spinach Salad with Grapefruit, Avocado and Walnuts
Four large handfuls (about 8 loose cups) of fresh organic spinach (tender stems are fine to include), washed and dried
2 tablespoons top quality extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 wedge of a fresh organic lemon
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 ripe avocado, pitted and flesh cubed into 1/2” pieces
1 ruby red grapefruit, peeled and sections cut into bite-sized pieces, preferably organic
1/2 cup walnuts (halves or pieces, preferably raw but toasted if you like. Can substitute raw pecans or almonds.)
Place spinach leaves in a large bowl; drizzle with olive oil, squeeze the fresh lemon juice all over and sprinkle a large pinch sea salt evenly on top (about 1/4 teaspoon). Add a generous grinding of black pepper. Toss well to evenly coat the spinach leaves, then top with the avocado pieces and grapefruit chunks, sprinkle with the walnuts and serve.
No matter which end of the trend you fall on when it comes to choosing to eat more local and seasonal foods, I think more of all of all good - in fact, I think more talk and action around all of it is great. Local foods are fresher, having traveled fewer distances to arrive on our tables, have higher nutrient values having spent less time in transit, they come from local growers who live and work in our economic region and contribute to the health of our communities, and most of all - they taste better. Taking a step toward choosing more foods from local sources couldn't be easier or more delicious than right now.
At the heart of it, eating seasonally means preparing vegetables picked at their prime in way that makes the most of their flavor and freshness by simply elaborating on the perfection that’s already there.
Lately the corn has been so good - both in Minnesota and in Colorado. Sweet, juice-filled and loaded with flavor, local sweet corn is still without any starchiness or toughness to the kernels. As part of a healthful diet that is loaded with a wide variety of colorful vegetables, corn is a delicious addition to celebrate the height of summer flavors.
To find the best sweet corn from a local stand or at the farmer’s market, ask the farmer when it was picked - you'll ideally want corn that was harvested within the past 24 hours for maximum sweetness and tender kernels. You don’t need to peel back every cob to get the best pickings - rather, gently squeeze the cob through the husks to feel for bruising or denting in the middle of the cob. I don’t worry about imperfections at the top of the cobs - once peeled back those can easily be cut off before preparing.
Once you get your sweet corn home, one of the easiest ways to prepare it is to simply pan-fry the freshly cut kernels in the best organic butter you can find, seasoned with a little sea salt and some fresh basil: it couldn’t be easier or more delicious. Enjoy it alongside your meal along with a big, fresh green salad and a plate of perfectly ripe locally-grown tomatoes drizzled with great olive oil and you’ve got the makings of a fantastic, seasonally-maximized dinner. Enjoy!
Fresh Summer Sweet Corn in Butter with Basil
kernels from 5 ears of sweet corn, preferably organic
3 tablespoons best-quality organic butter
several pinches of fine sea salt
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
freshly ground black pepper
Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat and add butter. Allow the butter to melt and brown slightly. Add corn kernels and sauté for 4 minutes, or just until warmed through and hot. Season with sea salt, fresh basil and black pepper. Serve immediately or at room temperature.
Two words: zucchini and cucumbers. Don’t groan! I know that this is the time of year when our collective enthusiasm for all things garden-fresh is shifting from waning to dread. It’s okay. Instead of feeling guilty about summer abundance, and instead of finding ways to turn everything into cake (even though I’ve enjoyed a good chocolate zucchini cake as much as the next person) I’m offering two ways to make easy green vegetable foods.
Here’s the quick version of why you should be eating zucchini and cucumbers right now: they’re at their peak and they’re good for you.
Guess what - all vegetables are good for you! Sometimes we mistakenly think that some vegetables are not good for us because we know that some vegetables (like kale, broccoli, and sweet potatoes) are incredibly great for us. But don’t be fooled - it’s variety that counts - not just confining our diets to the super foods.
Here’s the detailed version of why zucchini and cucumbers are good for you. First, cucumbers – with the skin on – are a great source of vitamins C and A as well as the B-vitamin folic acid. They provide fiber for the diet, and help prevent water retention because of the ascorbic and caffeic acids that they contain. But here’s my favorite reason to eat more cukes, though: silica. The mineral silica is very important for maintaining the strength in our connective tissues – muscles, ligaments, tendons, cartilage and bone – which in turn contributes to a healthy frame, which in turn helps maintain healthy joints.
Zucchini are good for us because, like cucumbers, they provide a lot of fiber for a minimal amount of calories by way of their high water content. More than that, however, in addition to providing vitamin C, antioxident-rich carotenes and potassium, zucchini (as well as all summer squash) contain naturally rich anticancer properties that protect us from cellular damage, especially sun damage. Again - you’ll want to keep the skin on, because that’s where the most valuable part is found.
Eating abundant amounts of both of these water-rich vegetables helps to provide our bodies with...water!, which is especially important during a season in which dehydration can easily occur.
Choose cucumbers and zucchini that have a firm flesh - no squishiness - and clear skin. Store them loosely wrapped in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Eat them on salads, grilled in fajitas (yes, you can cook cucumbers just like a zucchini!), sliced into “chips” for dipping your favorite hummus, or blended into a soup. Below are two of my two newest summer recipes using two of my most favorite summer vegetables. Enjoy!
Chilled Cucumber-Avocado Soup
3 cucumbers, ends trimmed
1/8 – 1/4 cup pine nuts (optional)
1/2 cup freshly squeezed juice from organic lemons (NOT out of a bottle)
zest of one organic lemon
1 tablespoon maple syrup or raw honey
1/2 cup fresh basil
1/4 cup fresh mint (peppermint or spearmint)
2 tablespoons parsley
1 teaspoon sea salt
additional basil or mint to garnish
Add all of the ingredients to a blender and blend until smooth. Add a little bit of water, 1 tablespoon at a time, if needed, to blend. Taste for salt and serve immediately or chill to serve later. Garnish with shredded basil or mint. Serves 4
Summer Zucchini Bisque
4 zucchini or summer squash, ends trimmed, cut into 1/2” pieces
1 medium new potato or other potato, scrubbed and cut into 1/4” pieces
3-4 summer onions, with the tops, chopped into 1/2” pieces (or use 1 medium red or yellow onion)
5 cloves summer garlic cloves (or use 3-4 regular garlic cloves)
2 tablespoons organic butter
2 cups water
1 vegetable or chicken bouillon cube (optional)
1 teaspoon salt (DO NOT ADD if using bouillon cube)
large handful fresh herbs: mix basil, oregano, chive, parsley)
freshly ground pepper
Heat a medium saucepan or soup pot over medium heat until warm to touch. Add butter and onions and sauté until onions turn translucent. Add garlic and sauté for two minutes longer. Add potatoes and zucchini and sauté until zucchini just begins to brown slightly.
Meanwhile, heat water and add bouillon cube, if using, to soften. After zucchini begins to brown, add water with bouillon (or water wtih salt) to the sautéed vegetables and simmer for 25 minutes or until potatoes are tender. Add herbs and pepper and blend with a stick blender or very carefully in batches in a regular blender. Return to pot, taste for salt and pepper, adjust as necessary, and serve immediately. Serves 4-6
I’m a big fan of knowing where my food comes from, as much as possible. There’s no better time to start planning on where to source food closest to home - either from a garden that is grown in your own backyard or a community garden, a pot of herbs on a patio or windowsill, or from a local CSA that delivers fresh vegetables weekly throughout the growing season.
There are so many ways to create a little patch of urban garden that will reward your family with green growing treats throughout the season. A section of turf can be turned into a bountiful kitchen garden; a wood box made from untreated lumber can be transformed into a raised bed garden; a big pot can grow a bumper crop of the most delicious cherry tomatoes right on your deck; and even a little trough of soil can sprout a nice variety of herbs to snip and use in salads or cooking throughout the season.
If a garden in your yard isn’t possible, then there may still be time to join a community garden. Your best bet is to find a community garden near you that is a little on the young side to find available space to grow. Gardening Matters is a website that runs a listserv with lots of information and all kinds of community gardening talk.
No time to garden? A Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share is a wonderful way to become directly involved in a small farm by directly investing in the farm operations in return for a weekly share of vegetables throughout the season. A CSA might be one step removed from a backyard garden, but it still provides the share members with a close connection to the growing season. With weekly updates along with a box of vegetables, members are naturally partners and risk takers as the changing whims of weather and nature positively or negatively impact the produce grown on the farm. The reward is incredible – fresh off the farm vegetables, with a deeper understanding of what truly seasonal food means and how hard it is to be a farmer.
Even if there is only time to make a weekly trip to the farmers’ market, the benefits of eating vegetables grown as close to your back door as possible are huge. Less time spent out of the ground means fresher, more nutrient-packed and better tasting vegetables, which need nothing more than a little washing and light preparation to make their flavors sing.
I saw a reproduction of an old sign when I was shopping at the Traditional Foods Warehouse yesterday. It read:
1. Buy it with thought.
2. Cook it with care.
3. Serve just enough.
4. Save what will keep.
5. Eat what would spoil
6. Home grown is best.
Just about says it all, doesn’t it?
Spring-Summer Garden Salad with Herbs in a Bowl
1 clove garlic or 2 teaspoons minced garlic scapes
juice of 1/4 lemon, squeezed
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
big pinch sea salt
2 - 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
freshly ground pepper
2 big handfuls fresh salad greens, rinsed and spun dry - use any combination of arugula, baby greens, leaf lettuce
1 big handful fresh herbs - use any combination of basil, oregano, mint, tarragon and nasturtiums
In a big salad bowl, combine garlic, onion, lemon juice, mustard and salt. Whisk with a fork to combine. Let sit while you wash and spin-dry the lettuce and remove the herbs from their stems. Whisk the olive oil into the salad bowl ingredients until well-combined. Add pepper and salt to taste. Tear lettuce into the bowl and add the handful of fresh herbs. Using two forks or two big serving spoons, toss the salad greens with the dressing in the bowl until all the leaves are coated and glossy with oil. Taste a leaf and add more fresh pepper as desired. Garnish with a big handful of pansies or nasturtiums and serve.