Spinach is a superfood that is great to eat, versatile and contains many health benefits.

Studies show that eating spinach may benefit vision, help prevent cancer and reduce blood pressure levels. Spinach is packed with vitamins and minerals including vitamins A, C and K1 as well as Folic acid, iron, magnesium and calcium. But, in the winter; what is the best way to buy your spinach? What is the best way to use spinach in the winter months: fresh, frozen or canned?

Due to more efficient distribution, you can get fresh spinach in the winter. As much as you would like, the growing season around here is in the summer. Going to a farm stand now for spinach is not an option. So you probably will be getting your spinach from as far south as Chile in the winter.

Spinach begins to lose nutrients as soon as it is picked, so make sure you’re buying from a place that is getting it quickly (yes that can happen from Chile). After about seven days, it will have lost close to 25 percent of its power.

Frozen is your next best option. It will lose about 10 percent of its nutrition during processing. The spinach is chopped then blanched. Keep in mind that the longer the spinach stays frozen, the more nutrients are lost. Do not stock up on frozen spinach because it is on sale; use it as close as you can to the time you purchase it. Because spinach is 91 percent water, you may need to drain frozen spinach when using in recipes. However, use the liquid when you can, as it, too, is full of nutrients.

Popeye knew best: You get more bang for your buck in the can. A can of spinach is equal to about two pounds fresh. The taste is a little different and there’s higher sodium content. You will pay about 30 percent of what fresh would be and almost half of frozen. Due to the canning process, you may lose about 25 percent of your nutrients during this phase. You can avoid eliminating more by not overcooking and serving right away. But, because you save so much money, just eat a little more to make up the loss. In most recipes that call for frozen spinach, you can substitute canned spinach.

The real secret to which way is healthier is in the way that you cook it (or not cook it). The longer you cook spinach, the more the nutrients will be cooked out. The best way to eat fresh spinach is raw, by doing so you retain 100 percent of nutrients. However, if you have food-borne illness concerns, make sure you get fresh spinach from a reliable source. Rinse your spinach, do not soak it as it will lose water soluble assets such as Vitamins C and A. A salad is a great way to eat raw spinach; it retains 100 percent of its healthiness. You can also add it to pasta or vegetable salads or put on sandwiches. I like to toss it in a smoothie because it also contains an almost equal amount of protein as it does carbohydrates. Making a spinach pesto to toss with eggs, pasta or vegetables is a great way to enjoy it.

If you want to cook it, steaming is the best method. You only lose about 8 percent of your nutrients. Next is sautéing – fast and light is the best way. Cook until shiny and soft, make sure it is still bright green. As the color turns towards khaki, you are losing nutrients. A splash of lemon juice will slow that down.

When adding spinach to soups, pasta, pizza, eggs and dips, add towards the end of the preparation. If adding to baked goods – yes, baked goods – steam and puree and substitute equally for liquid. This is an easy way to add more nutrition to your already great cooking.

Some may have too much of a good thing. For a small percentage (less than 1 percent), the oxalic properties of spinach may lead to kidney stones. But, a balanced diet that contains, fruits, nuts and dairy will allow you to get the most out of your spinach.

You may not turn out to have the punch that Popeye had when eating spinach, but your body will certainly benefit from adding it to your diet.

Sautéed spinach and mushrooms

Ingredients

1 pound sliced mushrooms

Large bunch spinach leaves about ½ pound

1 clove garlic

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper

1 teaspoon lemon juice

Sweat garlic in olive oil with mushrooms. Continue until mushrooms are fully cooked. Add spinach and sauté until wilted, about a minute. Hit with lemon juice and serve.

Spinach Pesto

Ingredients

2 cups packed spinach leaves

1/2 cup fresh basil leaves

1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pine nuts

1/3 cup parmesan cheese

3 garlic cloves

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil (use more or less for desired consistency)

In food processor, blend all ingredients. Toss in pasta, put on meats, add to rice, etc.

Banana and Spinach Muffins

Ingredients

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 egg

1/3 cup light brown sugar

2 ripe bananas

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Zest of half a lemon

1 cup packed spinach leaves

1/4 cup chopped nuts

Process spinach with oil until pureed. Mix with banana, lemon zest, egg and sugar. In separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, soda and salt. Fold dry and wet ingredients together. Fold in nuts. Bake in 350 degree oven for about 25 minutes.

Chef Joe Carei has been an award-winning chef in Fayette County nearly half of his life. The former PA Restaurateur of the Year now operates Ellie Mae’s Catering and Food Clubs. He can be reached at joe@elliemaescatering.com.

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