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Groundwork: I eats my spinach ...

The hoop frame at Green Spring Gardens kept the spinach and carrots going through the winter, but the fava beans were felled by the freezes before the snows. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Popeye the Sailor spurred superhuman deeds by scarfing a can of spinach, itself the act of a hero, given cooked spinach's flavor and texture. Now if he had grown it himself, and sampled the buttery flavor of the young leaf, he might have championed the leafy green even more. Such effete behavior would have been lost on Olive Oyl, I suspect, but even non-foodies prefer the fresh article to something in a can. This piece by food writer and my former colleague Candy Sagon puts it in perspective.

Recipe Included

I'd like to say growing spinach is as easy as growing lettuce or Swiss chard, but it's not.
Spinach is a sublime crop, but it doesn't like heat, and if taken outside its temperate comfort zone it tends to abruptly stop growing leaves and throw up a flower stalk, guaranteeing a rapid decline in flavor.

So there are two basic ways to grow spinach in the mid-Atlantic. Probably the best method is to directly sow seeds in the garden in mid-August, and let them mature during the cooling nights of fall. Those sown in September will also winter over and spring back nicely in April and May before bolting.

The second approach is to sow them now in the garden and hope for a cool long spring like last year's (spinach seed begins to germinate when soil temperatures reach 50 degrees, about now) or to start them indoors under lights.

The frame is fashioned from plastic piping and lumber, and is covered in the growing season with black netting against the deer and rabbits, and in winter by this covering, which lets in light and water but gives as much as 10 degrees of frost protection. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The savoy (crinkly) leafed variety pictured here at Green Spring Gardens was seed-started in late summer and wintered over happily in a protected hoop frame. The gathering warmth and light will induce fresh growth for in a couple of weeks, and they can be harvested as a cut-and-come-again crop until they bolt around Memorial Day. At that point you could pull them and put in okra or lima beans.

The garden is beginning to stir now that the snow has gone at last. It is three weeks behind, at least, I'd say. Green Spring's Cindy Brown keeps the overwintered kales and cabbages, although I think they look beaten down and awful. She protests at that suggestion, and says they will still be yummy this spring and will look better once the cold damaged outer leaves are replaced by new growth. If it were my garden, I'd pull them and make space for prettier spring fare.

The coiled wire mesh that functions as sturdy tomato cages will first be pressed into duty by the end of March, when they are used to support the peas that will be sown next week.

As for indoor seed starting, it's still a wee bit early for tomato plants. You should set the young transplants out in May, not April (they hate cold, wet soil), when they are six to eight weeks old. I'll start mine next weekend. Both chili and sweet peppers should be sown under lights now, however.

At Green Spring, the fall-sown fava bean experiment was a dud, we have decided. Cindy will sow afresh and see if we can get a crop before the heat and humidity arrive.

Like death and taxes, the sticky season is unavoidable in this part of the world. This makes the growing of cool season plants like spinach a bit of a high-wire act. Each growing season is different, but the start of it now is full of promise and anticipation. And spinach.

-- Adrian Higgins

Spinach, Fennel and Roasted Pepper Pizza
4 servings

The texture of spinach leaves, dry and dusty when raw, mushy when cooked, discourages many people from including it in their meals. This is a great way to get people to eat spinach with gusto. It can be an easy weeknight dinner when a prepared crust, jarred peppers and a bag of prewashed spinach are used. Or it can make for a great family weekend activity if the cook chooses to use homemade crust and fresh spinach and peppers. Either way, the fragrance of the baking pizza will draw everyone to the dinner table.

From Cynthia A. Brown, assistant director at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria.

1 large bunch spinach
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium cloves garlic, cut into thin slices
Freshly ground black pepper
Pinch plus 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 small red bell pepper or a small (6-ounce) jar of roasted red peppers, drained
Flour, for the work surface
1 pound homemade or store-bought pizza dough
1 tablespoon cornmeal, for dusting
2 tablespoons homemade or store-bought basil pesto
1/2 small fennel bulb (outer layers removed and stalks trimmed), cored and cut into thin slices
1/2 small red onion, cut into thin slices
4 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Position an oven rack in the lower third of the oven and place a pizza stone on it (if using); preheat to 450 degrees.

Pull the large stems off the spinach leaves and tear the leaves into large pieces (about 4 cups). Wash and drain the spinach leaves several times until all the sand and grit has been removed. Spin in a salad spinner until the leaves are fairly dry.

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil to the skillet then the garlic. Cook for 1 minute, stirring, to flavor the oil; do not let the garlic burn.

Add the spinach and cook for about 3 minutes, so the leaves are wilted and any remaining water has evaporated. Season with a grind of black pepper and a pinch of sea salt. Transfer the spinach to a medium bowl.

If using a fresh bell pepper, cut it in half lengthwise and discard the ribs and seeds.

Wipe out the skillet then return it to the stove, over medium-high heat.

Place the pepper halves in the skillet, skin side down. Sear for several minutes, watching closely, until the majority of the skin is blackened. Transfer the pepper halves to a paper bag and seal it until the peppers have cooled. Discard the blackened skin, then cut the peppers crosswise into thin slices.

Lightly flour a work surface. Roll out the pizza dough to a 12-inch round. If using a pizza pan, dust it with cornmeal. If using a pizza stone, dust a pizza peel with cornmeal.

Carefully transfer the dough to the pan, or on a pizza peel. Crimp or roll the edges all the way around the dough. Place in the oven or transfer to the pizza stone and bake for 6 minutes.

Remove from the oven and drizzle the remaining tablespoon of oil over the crust, using a pastry brush or your fingers to spread it evenly. Sprinkle the crust with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt.

Spread the pesto over the crust, leaving a 1-inch margin around the edges. Evenly distribute the cooked spinach, fennel, onion and bell pepper over the crust. Lay the mozzarella slices on the vegetables, but don't completely cover them. Sprinkle the Parmesan on top.

Return the pizza to the oven and bake for about 15 minutes, or until the cheese just begins to brown. Cut into slices; serve hot.

Per serving: 540 calories, 24 g protein, 59 g carbohydrates, 24 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 35 mg cholesterol, 1380 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  March 15, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Cindy Brown, Groundwork, recipes  
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