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A spin on spinach

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Popeye cartoons were pure propaganda!

Sure, the guy turned into a Schwarzenegger after gulping a glob of spinach . . .But impressionable cartoon-watching kids saw nothing more than an strange little sailor slurping down a disgusting green glob. (One of those kids would go on to write and direct "The Blob," a movie inspired by the Popeye-glob routine.)

Believe me, no Pez-popper in her right mind would touch spinach.

At this juncture, Andy Rooney would probably inquire: "Did you ever wonder if Popeye was in the back pocket of the spinach industry?"

Nutrition-minded mothers loved the spinach-is-good-for-children message they assumed their young ones absorbed while glued to the tube:

"If you eat ALL your spinach, you'll be big and strong just like Popeye."

I was terrified at the thought of resembling Popeye in ANY way! My generation wanted to be dutiful Do Bees, but our refusal to ingest spinach in any form changed the do's to a militant hive of don'ts.

Then followed The Spinach Revolt - triggered, of course, by revolting spinach). "Mutiny In The County - all across America. We "leaders of tomorrow" still refused to nibble on the gritty green leaves, especially in the form of creamed, pureed pap.

During this time (the so-called Spinach Wars), an immortal battle cry was born . . .

"Lips that touch spinach will never touch mine!"

Think about it . . . Popeye's propoganda/cartoons were painfully predictable. A ham-armed homeless sailor man (who purportedly lived in a garbage can) with a voice like someone was pinching his nostrils together would squeeze open a can of spinach and wolf down the contents. The previously helpless Popeye was then magically morphed into a Hulk Hogan type.

Popeye saved this strength-enhancing procedure for times of great danger - when a helpless soul needed to be rescued. Olive Oyl was always the ditsy damsel in distress.

It was clear to me and my sibs that if Popeye could squeeze open a tin can with his bare hands, he was already real strong - so what's with the spinach?

Propaganda!

The dramatic cartoon climax was when Popeye the sailor man, after swallowing the spinach, proceeded to knock the socks off Bluto the bully. The prize - that odd Oyl woman.

Reality was - baby boomers inately knew that (contrary to porpoganda), spinach would NOT make us big and strong - even if you ate it by the truckload!

Spinach, long-heralded as a great source of iron is, in fact, an "iron-blocker." Technically, it contains iron and calcium. But, like beans, lentils, beet greens and other leafy vegetables, a chemical found in spinach - oxalic acid, limits the absorption of iron and calcium.

Oxalic acid could be "loosely" compared to Olestra, the synthetic fat-buster. Oxalic acid prevents iron from entering the bloodstream. Olestra rolls right on through the body.

Doctors say if your iron count needs a boost, eat a liver dinner . . . it will be elevated. If you're not - add a handful of orange slices to your spinach salad. Citrus fruits contain vitamins and acids that counteract the effects of oxalic acid and promotes iron absorption.

Our mothers were right after all. Spinach is good for us. The popular greens are cholesterol-free, low in calories (40 per 11/2 cups), and calcium-rich. Plus the lovely leaves are high in vitamins A and C, folate and potassium, with an added bonus of magnesium and fiber.

Available year-round, the dark-green leaves may either be flat or curled. Flat-leaf spinach is sometimes sold as "salad spinach." Both have the same taste and look alike after they're cooked.

How about some timely tips on rescuing the reputation of the spinach we once misguidedly loathed.

- First and foremost, SPINACH DOES NOT AND NEVER WILL BELONG IN A PRESSURE COOKER (unless you're using the pan as a salad bowl.)

- Thoroughly rinse the sand and grit from the loose variety of spinach. Rinse a couple times more (biting into a dirt crouton is no treat!) then pat dry with paper towels, or put the leaves on "spin cycle" in a salad spinner. Refrigerate in a plastic bag for up to 3 days.

- Remove the stems by folding each leaf lengthwise so that the insides touch, then bend back the stem and remove.

- Fresh, pre-washed spinach sold in plastic bags is a great time-saver. Be sure the leaves are bright green.

- COOKED SPINACH SHOULD NOT DANGLE FROM ONE'S FORK LIKE A KUDZU VINE.

- Cook properly by rinsing spinach briefly in cold water, then steam it on the stove top with just the water left on the leaves.

- For the best flavor, you will want cooked spinach to be barely limp.

- Quickly drain the spinach, add the desired seasonings (lemon juice at the last minute or the color will fade), and serve immediately.

- For a unique taste trip, heat a little Asian-style sesame oil in a wok or large skillet and add some minced garlic and a pinch of dried red pepper flakes if you want a kick. Add the spinach and stir-fry long enough for the spinach to be barely limp.

And now, the proverbial final caution to ex-spinach-hating boomers who aren't sure of what to do with the greens beside make salads . . .

WHEN COOKING SPINACH, LESS IS MORE.

Watch for a possible companion FOOD EXTRA . . . "Olive Oil - Identity Crisis In a Bottle."

*****

RECIPES

CLAUDIA'S SPINACH SALAD

1 teaspoon garlic salt

1 tablespoon salad oil

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

1 tablespoon wine vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar

1/4 cup minced onion

Salt and pepper to taste

1 raw egg, pasteurized*

1 package fresh salad spinach

3 slices crisply-cooked bacon (NOT BACOS)

2 hard boiled eggs for garnish

Mix together all ingredients except pasteurized egg and spinach. Whisk until well-blended. Let sit for at least 1 hour. Beat in pasteurized egg; mix well until thickened. Pour over prepared spinach. Crumble crisp bacon on top; sprinkle with chopped hard boiled eggs, if desired. Serves 4.

- Each serving contains 125 calories, 8g fat, 8g carb, 818mg sodium, 159mg cholesterol.

- From Claudia Coombs

- NOTE: Food scientist Shirley Corriher advises when a recipe calls for raw eggs, follow this pasteurizing procedure to prevent salmonella:

Heat water in a pan or bowl to 140 degrees F (which is not very hot - hot tap water is in this range). Place raw eggs in water for 31/2 minutes. Remove and whisk. Use egg as directed in recipe. (With this method, you don't even have to get the yolks to the salmonella instant-kill temperature of 160 degrees F.)

GREEK-STYLE RICE WITH SPINACH

1/2 tablespoon olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

4 cups chopped clean fresh spinach

3 tablespoons lemon juice

4 cups cooked long grain rice

1 to 2 tablespoons minced fresh basil

1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese (if you can find feta with sun-dried tomatoes and basil, use it!)

Salt and pepper to taste

Heat oil in a heavy skillet or wok. Add onion and garlic and cook on medium-high heat until onion is softened and transparent. Add spinach, lemon juice and rice; cook, stirring frequently, until spinach is just limp and rice is thoroughly heated. Toss in basil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Arrange rice in a mound on a colorful platter. Sprinkle rice mixture with crumbled feta cheese. Serves 4.

- Each serving contains 376 calories, 7g fat, 68g carbs, 130mg sodium, 6mg cholesterol.

- Adapted from the Orange County Register

SPINACH-ARTICHOKE CASSEROLE

2 jars marinated artichoke hearts, slightly drained

3 packages frozen chopped spinach, cooked and drained well

3 3-ounce packages cream cheese, softened

1/4 cup margarine

6 tablespoons milk

1/3 cup fresh Parmesan cheese, grated

Arrange artichokes on the bottom of a 11/2-quart casserole. Cover with spinach and season with pepper. With food processor or mixer, beat cream cheese, margarine and milk together. Spread over the spinach. Refrigerate for about 24 hours. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese on top of the prepared casserole. Bake at 375 degrees F for 40 minutes. Serves 6 to 8 people.

- Each serving contains 344 calories, 31g fat, 11g carb, 724 mg sodium, 43mg cholesterol

- From Dr. Nancy Snyderman

SCALLOPS WITH SPINACH AND LEMON

1 pound bay scallops (the small ones)

1 package fresh spinach or 1 10-ounce package frozen spin-ach

2 fresh lemons; one cut into wedges, the other juiced

4 to 6 tablespoons butter

Salt, black pepper and white pepper to taste

If using a package of fresh spinach, wash, stem and saute spinach until slightly wilted; set aside. If using frozen spinach, prepare according to package directions, and drain; removing moisture. Wash scallops to remove sand. On medium high stove, heat a large, heavy pan; add butter. Add spinach and saute until heated through. Season with salt and pepper. Push spinach to the sides of the pan, forming a ring. Add scallops to center of the pan and saute 3 or 4 minutes, moving gently to keep from disturbing spinach ring. Season with salt and white pepper. When scallops are tender, pour lemon juice over them. Saute scallops and lemon for about a minute more. Remove scallops and set aside.

To serve, make a bed of spinach on a plate, top with scallops and pan juices. Serve with lemon wedges on the side. If serving a large crowd, you can keep the spinach warm in a separate pan while you saute the scallops. Serves 2 as a main dish; 4 as an appetizer.

- Each main dish serving contains 613 calories, 38g fat, 22g carb, 1350mg sodium, 213mg cholesterol.

- From Mary Frye

PEAR AND MIXED GREENS SALAD

1 Bosc pear, unpeeled, cored and cut into bite-size pieces

1 packed cup mixed salad greens

1 packed cup spinach leaves (baby spinach leaves are the best)

10 fresh mint leaves

3 tablespoons Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped hazelnuts

1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

1/8 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons olive oil

In salad bowl, combine pear, salad greens, spinach leaves, mint, cheese and nuts. Toss gently to mix. In cup, stir together pepper, salt and vinegar. Stir in oil. Gently stir in oil. Gently stir into salad and toss. Serve immediately. Makes 2 servings.

- Each serving contains 289 calories, 24g fat, 17g carb, 413mg sodium, 10mg cholesterol.

- From Elaine Steibel