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Monday, May 12, 2014


Spinach - 'A Table without Vegetables 
is a Table Without Wisdom'
Photo by: Lord-Williams
Cat espinac, OCat spinats, espinachs, L. Spinacia oleracea, Ar. isfanâkh, isfanāj, Eng spinach. It is named Spinacia or spina, meaning “spine,” which refers to the plant’s spiny fruit. Oleracea, refers to a plant that is edible. Some claim spinach is a native of Persia but the origin of wild spinach is unknown. 

The Arabs themselves considered it an exotic gift from Nepal. In the 7th C. Spinach was one of the most cultivated vegetables during Arab occupation of Spain, which they claim they introduced to the peninsula as it is of Berber origin.

Others believe it originated in Spain and Spaniards were responsible for diffusing spinach throughout Europe and later they took it to the New World. At times, it was called hispanach or herbs of Espaigne.

The seed is sown every two weeks from September to November and then requires daily watering. The plant can be eaten within 15-20 days after sowing. It is commonly eaten from November to Easter and especially during Lent.

The season ends when the flowers begin to bloom. There are male and female spinaches. The females’ flowers bloom first. The seeds that follow are collected from the hardest plants of both sexes and can be keep in a dry place up to three years before sowing again.

Pliny prohibited spinach saying it is noxious. Avenzoar, during the 12th C. in Al-Andalus, describes it as cold and dry. Averroes and Avicenna prescribed it for colic as they thought it cools quickly and generates lukewarm blood. By the Middle Ages, at least, there was an Arab proverb: ‘A table without vegetables is a table without wisdom.’

Carefully Washing Spinach Leaves
Photo by: Lord-Williams
Spinach, eaten in Al-Andalus was served fried and in casseroles. The leaves were consumed boiled, as in soups, mixed with sauces or eaten raw in salads. The Anón Al-Andalus provides a Cordovan recipe for spinach with lamb fat, soft cheese and butter. Fadalat contained an entire chapter providing spinach recipes but today is lost. The first Christian record is documented in Regimen sanitatis ad inclylum regem Aragonum directum et ordinatum by Arnau de Vilanova (1220-1311), court physician to Pedro II of Aragon. He dedicated a chapter to garden vegetables, which included spinach.

Juan Ruíz dictates that lecherous married women and nuns should eat spinach on Wednesday’s as an act of penitence. A 14th C French recipe called  "olus hispaniense,” consists of chopping spinach, fried in lard and then boiled it in meat broth. Later, raisins and grated Aragonese cheese are added. This is practically the same as Nola’s recipe for chopped spinach.

Medicinally, it was thought to be an old peoples’ dish as it is light and easy to digest. Alfonso Chirina, Juan II[1] of Castile’s physician, considered it to be a mild laxative. He recommended that it be slightly cooked in broth.

For the opposite effect, it should be overcooked in water. At one point the English suspected that it has a decalcification agent, which caused youths to reject it. It was not until the advent of Popeye’s birth in 20th C that the rich iron content and Vitamins A and C in the plant were discovered. It was presumed that with this strength, a longing for love was produced.

Stir-frying Spinach
Photo by: Lord-Williams
[Anón/Grewe. 1982: 68:230; Anón/Huici. 1966:13:206:374:205; Benavides-Barajas. Nueva-Clásica. 1995:240. Bolens. 1990:49; Castro. Alimentación. 1996:171; ES: Anon/Perry. Sep 5, 02:ftn 154; ES: Benavides-Barajas. “Cocina.” Sep 29. 01; Ibn Razīn/Marín. 2007:36; Ibn Zuhr/García Sánchez. 1992:83; Martínez Llopis. Historia. 1981:153; Nola. 1989:xxxiii-1; Ruíz/Brey. 1965:185:1166a-d; and Estéfano. n/d. sin número]

For 4-8 persons as it makes four cups

4  lbs fresh spinach
1 c olive oil
2 tsp salt

Snap the stems off the leaves. Discard the stems. Wash the leaves thoroughly in cold water, squeeze them until as dry as possible. Tear into two or three pieces. Take a pot and put in ¼ c olive oil with ½ tsp salt. Add ¼ of the leaves and stir fry. When wilted, remove the leaves from the pot.

Discard excess water from the pot add ¼ c olive oil, ½ tsp salt and ¼ of the fresh spinach greens. When done, remove the wilted greens from the pot and repeat this operation adding more oil, salt and greens until all the spinach is stir-fried.
Items enhancing spinach rt to left:
nutmeg, cinnamon, pine-kernels,raisins,
garlic, onion, vinegar and cheese
Photo by: Lord-Williams

This recipe refutes erroneous views that medieval foods were heavily spiced. It cannot be reiterated enough that spices were luxuries that only nobles could afford. Even so, they were used sparingly because of the cost.

Secondly, spices were not used to bury the taste of spoiled food. People, during the Middle Ages, had stomachs as delicate as people today.

Further, spices do not preserve food. Food is preserved in salt or wine and/or vinegar.

As seen above, this recipe does not even include onions or garlic. Spinach is a dish to challenge the creativity of the cook. He would include these items and other medieval ingredients such as: 1 tsp nutmeg, ½ tsp cinnamon, ¼ c seedless raisins, ¼ c pine kernels and at the last moment a dash of vinegar and/or grated cheese sprinkled on top.

Spinach invites all kinds of spices, herbs and sauces. Today, white sauce is commonly used to make creamed spinach but white sauce does not appear in medieval Spanish records. Also, American spices such as chile might be added by today’s chefs.

[1] Father of Isabel I, wife of Ferdinand the Catholic.

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