Spinach is a tremendously versatile green vegetable, to the extent that it can even send emails, as scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have shown. Their particular brand of Spinacia oleracea was fitted with carbon nanotubes capable of detecting explosive chemicals in ground water and then sending you an email about it, and therefore may not be edible. But at least it was good at keeping in touch.
Non-email-ready spinach is still well-known for being the world’s least taxing side dish: poke the bag with a fork, stick it in the microwave for two minutes, serve. Yes, I see where it says “wash before use” – I poked the fork right through the words. A little microwaved dirt never hurt anyone. Once you’ve succumbed to this method, it’s tempting to cook spinach in no other way, but there are other ways, and here are 17 of them.
A classic spanakopita, is a Greek layered pie of filo pastry, spinach and cheese. Adult leaves are best for this, according to Felicity Cloake – baby ones tend to cook down to nothing.
Traditionally the cheese in spanaikopita is feta, although Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall does a version with ricotta – another common pairing with spinach found in many Italian dishes, including Rachel Roddy’s baked ricotta and spinach and Cloake’s spinach and ricotta cannelloni. The combination also makes a handy ravioli stuffing if you happen to have been given a pasta machine for Christmas and are still trying to work out what to do with it. I was given a pasta machine for Christmas, and I’m here to tell you that the spinach and ravioli filling may be the only part you get right the first time.
Spinach soup is one of the easiest soups to make by accident – just overcook some spinach, et voila! – but it’s also not terribly difficult to make on purpose. This straightforward spinach soup recipe from Maxine Clark features two common affiliations: spinach and cream, and spinach and nutmeg, but other variations might also include leeks, creme fraiche, yoghurt or celery. It generally also contains onion, potato and a bit of lemon juice, and is whizzed smooth at the end. Thomasina Miers’ spicy Ethiopian lentil and spinach soup adds chilli, ginger and tomatoes to the mix.
Yotam Ottolenghi’s bkeila, potato and butter bean stew has a base of bkeila – also known as pkaila – a Tunisian Jewish condiment made by cooking spinach in olive oil for hours until it turns almost black. Luckily Ottolenghi’s version cuts down on the time required. You can also sometimes find a jarred version sold as confit d’épinards.
Baby spinach leaves are generally preferable for salad, if only for size. This spinach, broad bean and feta salad calls for frozen broad beans, which is handy as it’s too early for fresh, but only just. Nigel Slater’s new potato and spinach salad contains not much else besides capers and a bit of mint. For Slater’s other spinach salad, with fennel, parmesan and green beans, the main ingredients are cooked, but just barely: the spinach wilted for a minute or two before being plunged into ice water; the fennel lightly grilled.
Spinach figures in many Indian dishes, such as Meera Sodha’s vegan saag aloo or Madhur Jaffrey’s decidedly un-vegan paalag gosht. Technically, “saag” can mean any type of greens, while “paalag” (or “palak”) refers specifically to spinach.
Asma Khan’s saag paneer combines spinach with chilli, ginger, tomato and cream and ready-made paneer cheese. Obviously you can also make your own paneer, but that’s another recipe for another time. Meanwhile, Ottolenghi has a recipe, originally concocted to use up leftovers, for making spinach paneer cakes, adding the guts of a large baked potato to the standard ingredients, forming the result into patties and frying them in coconut oil.
Nigel Slater has another tasty, rainy-day recipe for spinach cakes, this time featuring chickpeas, lemongrass, a few herbs and “a bag of spinach, slightly past its use-by date”. I think if you have only spinach within its use-by day it will still work.
Finally, there are many recipes online telling you how to make ice-cream using spinach, but very few of them tell you why. The answer, apparently, is just to make it bright green – everybody insists you can’t even taste the spinach. The exact ingredients vary from devotee to devotee, but usually include a couple of bananas, some kind of dairy product or its vegan equivalent, agave syrup or some other high-minded sweetener and a bunch of ice cubes. Beyond these, all that is required is a few minutes of your time and a top-notch blender. This instructional video for “Popeye” ice-cream from Nicko’s Kitchen is worth watching, if only because Nicko has his own theme song. Remember: if you can taste the spinach, you’re doing it wrong.