Every autumn, the dishes that come out of my kitchen make a turn from the greens of late summer to the earthy hues of fall. Only then do I truly appreciate the dark sturdy color of winter spinach. Absent through summer, spinach returns like a loyal friend, waiting in the crisp autumn air. Compared to baby spinach, with its fragile leaves, crinkly-leaved spinach harvested after frost is so hearty in taste, texture, and color that I think of it as a different vegetable altogether. With leaves as big as your hand, juicy and curly with thick stems, this is what spinach is supposed to taste like.
Some spinach varieties bear smooth leaves, while others have crinkled, or savoyed, leaves. The ruffling tends to become more pronounced in fall—one reason I prefer the thicker, juicier savoyed varieties as temperatures drop. The leaves get darker and the flavor more concentrated because the plants convert their starches into sugars to lower their freezing temperature in order to survive the cold. It is common to have spinach produce beautiful leaves well past frost and, if protected by a cloche or floating row cover, well into winter. The longer days of late spring and summer prompt the plants to bolt, which makes the leaves less flavorful.
Key to success with winter spinach is planting the seeds early enough so they reach maturity before the first frost. Depending on the variety, spinach will begin to be ready to harvest in 5 to 8 weeks. The easiest way to harvest is to simply cut the entire plant. But spinach will provide an extended harvest if cared for properly. Snip off only the oldest, largest leaves, and the rest of the plant will continue to produce crunchy leaves for your winter stews. That is, if hungry rabbits don’t get to it first.
An alternative method is to cover the plants completely with mulch before winter, which will cause the plants to go dormant. Pull back the mulch as the days warm in early spring to prompt fresh growth. Doing this means you miss the crunchiest, sweetest leaves of winter, but it ensures that you’ll be the first one in the neighborhood cutting spinach in spring.
I get my winter spinach from a farmer in southern Indiana who pulls it out of the dirt the morning I ask for it. Because of its network of veins and crinkled leaves, savoyed spinach will always need thorough cleaning to wash out every last speck of dirt. The best method is to fill a large container with cold water and completely immerse the spinach in it. Move the leaves about to loosen the dirt, which will sink to the bottom. Slowly remove the spinach from the water and drain it on thick towels until completely dry. These are tough leaves, so don’t worry about being gentle. Place them in an airtight container in the refrigerator to keep them fresh for up to a week.
Winter spinach is as versatile as it is flavorful. I love it raw in salads; it is hearty enough to withstand big flavors like bacon, butternut squash, roasted beets, and even warm vinaigrettes. Try substituting it for lettuce in your next turkey sandwich. A quick sauté with garlic, butter, and nutmeg is a classic accompaniment to any winter roast. For a super-fancy garnish, deep-fry it in corn oil, drain it on paper towels, and sprinkle it with sea salt. I eat these like potato chips. But my favorite way to use winter spinach is to add it to stews or rice dishes at the last minute. Spinach is mostly water, which is why it wilts down so much when heated. Adding it to warm dishes last minute as a finishing touch preserves its unique texture and color. It is a wonderful platform to show off this most loyal winter crop.
Continue reading for delicious winter spinach recipes.