Spinach used to be a noun, a particular plant, Spinacia oleracea: a pleasure to eat but a pain to grow, requiring lots of feeding and watering and running to seed the minute you look at it. Now, in the forest garden, it has become a verb, a way of cooking, something you do with a great variety of leaves.
Here’s my spinach recipe. Gather a mixture of wild garlic (Allium ursinum), leaf beet (Beta vulgaris), perennial kale (Brassica oleracea ramosa), red mustard (Brassica juncea), hedge garlic (Alliaria petiolata), Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus), salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius), pea (Pisum sativum), Hosta and mallow (Malva sylvestris) leaves. Give them a quick wash and chop roughly.
Now fry an onion and some garlic (or any of the other alliums from the forest garden, but I won’t go there just now) in a large pan. Then throw the leaves on top, sprinkle on a little salt, cover and cook slowly. The jucier leaves will cook in their own juice if there is still some water clinging to the leaves, but with the others you will need to add a tiny bit of water.
To my taste, the result is simple but delicious. I also love the texture. Frozen spinach from the shops goes to a horrible mush, but the large leaf size in this recipe gives it a firmness and integrity.
If the taste isn’t enough, spinach is, as your mum no doubt told you, very good for you. Apparently spinach got its near supernatural reputation for iron content and strengthening properties (think Popeye) when an early table of the nutrient content of different foods accidentally slipped a decimal place, giving spinach ten times the iron content that it really has. None the less, all green, leafy vegetables do contain plenty of iron and also high levels of protein. On top of that, they encourage the growth of Lactobacillus in the gut, the beneficial bacteria that some people spend a fortune ingesting in ‘probiotic’ yoghurts and such.
I quite enjoy a dollop of ‘green’ as a side dish in any meal, but there are lots of other ways to use it, such as spanakopita, lasagna or spinach, feta and dill filo triangles. It seems to have a bit of an affinity with chickpeas, as in many Mediterranean recipes.
Many of the above species are natural shade plants, but even those which aren’t can benefit from some shade. Leaf beet naturally grows in the open, but shade leads it to produce larger, more tender leaves, so I layer it under the apple tree. It isn’t a perennial but self seeds so reliably that it doesn’t really matter.