Silverbeet and spinach

Silverbeet and spinach

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
3 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667678
Photographer
William Meppem

From a very young age children are exhorted to eat their greens by well-intentioned adults. Naturally, this ‘it’s good for you’ approach leaves most children cold – especially when greens such as silverbeet and spinach can be strong-flavoured or even bitter, and cook down to a distressing sliminess.

With age, of course, comes a little wisdom, and eventually most of us make that wonderful discovery that greens really are delicious. Yes, they are full of fibre, vitamins and minerals, but instead of that being their main selling point, it becomes merely a bonus. What is more, that detested slipperiness is what suddenly makes them so desirable – steamed or braised to a luscious glossy silkiness, or conversely adding a crunchy vitality to raw salads.

Silverbeet, spinach and many other wild greens are found throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East, where they are hugely popular. Of the two, silverbeet (or Swiss chard, as it is also known), is thought to have been cultivated since Neolithic times, and was certainly known and loved by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Silverbeet is actually a type of beet, but the leaves have been developed rather than the root. In France and Italy they tend to use the stalks – the chards – which are sliced out and braised or gratinéed separately, rather like celery. Middle Easterners prefer the leaves, which are sturdy enough to be stuffed, or can be shredded into soups, stuffings and pies or braised with garlic, lemon and allspice for a cold mezze dish.

Spinach, on the other hand, seems to have been unknown to the Greeks and Romans. Native to Persia, it is yet another vegetable that was carted west by the Arabs. By the Middle Ages spinach had become popular in Spain, Italy, France and even England. Its European names all derive from the Arabic ‘sapanekh’, which comes itself from the Persian word ‘espenaj’.

Spinach is rather more delicate than silverbeet. It needs only the briefest of cooking (or can even be eaten raw), and lends itself generously to other stronger flavours: garlic, lemon-juice and chilli all complement it superbly. The Arabic legacy can be seen all around the southern and eastern Mediterranean, where there are countless recipes for spinach mixed with chickpeas or lentils – often garnished with currants and crunchy pine nuts. Spinach works equally well, of course, with the smooth, softening influence of cream, yoghurt, cheese or eggs.

Selecting and storing silverbeet and spinach

Silverbeet is a surprisingly popular home-grown vegetable. It is easy to grow and its season is almost never-ending. Its crinkly leaves can be a deep, glossy green or brightly hued red, orange or yellow. When buying silverbeet from the market or supermarket, choose small bunches, as the leaves are likely to be younger and more tender. Silverbeet should be firm and vital, not soft and wilted. The leaves should be glossy, without sun damage, and the long stalks should be crisp and white.

Spinach comes in large bundles or in convenient ready-washed loose leaves. Again, choose bunches which look vibrant and healthy, not withered and drooping. If you can, select smaller leaves and avoid damaged ones. Spinach often comes with a generous covering of mud which needs to be washed off very thoroughly.

The stalks should be torn off at the base of the leaf – the whole central stem does not need to be removed, as it does with silverbeet.

Frozen chopped spinach is an adequate substitute for fresh spinach in soups or stuffing mixes where the texture is less important. But if you want to serve spinach as a vegetable dish or salad, then really only fresh will do.

Using silverbeet and spinach

For most Middle Eastern dishes, only the silverbeet leaves are used. After washing thoroughly, slice out the stalks (they can be blanched and refrigerated for use in other recipes, if desired). If the leaves are to be used whole, blanch them for a few minutes then refresh them in cold water. Otherwise they may be steamed until tender for around 6 minutes and tossed in butter or olive oil. Silverbeet leaves are also good braised in olive oil with garlic, lemon juice and a pinch of allspice.

Spinach may be steamed in its rinsing water in a large pot – it needs to be turned constantly so that the bottom leaves don’t burn and the top leaves get their turn close to the heat. As soon as all the leaves have wilted down, the spinach must be very well drained and all that is required then is a large knob of butter and a seasoning of salt and pepper. Or they may be sautéed in hot olive oil with a little garlic, or even blanched, a handful at a time, in lots of boiling salted water. Each little bundle should then be plunged into a sink of cold water and then tightly squeezed of its water. This method is often better when the spinach is not to be eaten straight away as a simple accompaniment. The leaves will be drier, so are better for stuffing mixes, or for salads. The blanched leaves can even be very carefully unfurled and stuffed themselves, as a change from vine leaves.

Recipes in this Chapter

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