Don't be scared to put spinach on the table

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Are you afraid of spinach? Does it conjure up images of green, flavorless mush? Popeye, perhaps, downing can after can of the stuff?

Well, it turns out that Popeye knew what he was doing, eating all that spinach. Spinach is one of the most nutritious of the leafy greens, rich in iron, calcium, cancer-fighting antioxidants, vitamin K and vitamin C. It contains the nutrient lutein, for strong vision and prevention of cataracts and macular degeneration. Like other leafy greens, spinach is very low in calories. Surprisingly, one serving of spinach even contributes a couple of grams toward your daily protein needs. Eating spinach is a healthy choice, indeed.

Best of all, area farmers are harvesting it right now in unheated greenhouses, so it's possible to get fresh, local spinach for your next culinary adventure. If you can find organic spinach, even better. More than 60 percent of the spinach tested by the Food and Drug Administration contains pesticide residues, according to Cindy Burke in her book "To Buy or Not to Buy Organic."

Use your spinach within a few days of purchasing it; until then, keep in in an air-tight container or plastic bag. Wash it thoroughly in cold water before storing it to save yourself a step later on.

Don't even think about boiling that beautiful spinach, though. Why risk leaching out its nutrients or, worse, replicating the gooey mush of your childhood? Here are a few simple, foolproof ideas for cooking with spring spinach.

Spinach, with its fresh, bitter taste, combines well with lots of flavors. For a healthy and delicious salad, toss it raw with apples, walnuts, goat cheese and a light dressing of apple cider vinegar and olive oil. Add a bit of crumbled, crispy bacon for yet another dimension. Or, try a classic combination of spinach, feta cheese, oregano and an easy dressing of fresh lemon juice and olive oil. Turn this one into a heartier meal by topping it with sliced, grilled chicken.

Cooking spinach calls for a light touch, to preserve its delicate flavor and nutrients. It's easily sauteed in olive oil with finely chopped garlic and onions in a minute or two; try a bit of cumin for an interesting twist. Just make sure you're quick. A few minutes is all it takes on the stove, and don't let it sit in the pan for more than a minute or two before serving.

Here's a super-easy way to incorporate a little spinach into your diet. Finely chop a couple of handfuls and add it to a pot of soup just before serving. One of my trusted old standby soup recipes is made with a chicken stock base, crushed tomatoes, cheese tortellini and chopped spinach. Flavor with Italian herbs and serve with grated Parmesan cheese. This easy, satisfying soup invites seconds, every time.

Spinach pairs well with eggs, too, so consider giving it a try with breakfast by scrambling up chopped, raw spinach, sliced mushrooms and cream cheese. Or, fold it into an omelet with crunchy bacon and feta cheese.

Use your imagination; it's hard to go wrong with this versatile leafy green. Find it locally, if you can, use it while it's fresh and, remember to cook it with a light touch. Popeye had no idea how good spinach could be!

Eleanor Baron lives, gardens, cooks, and writes in Concord, New Hampshire, and stalks area farmers markets for fresh, in-season vegetables. Visit her blog at nourishingwords.net for more ideas and inspiration on incorporating healthy habits into your life.

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