By Dani Lind | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
When you think “spinach,” what comes to mind? If you’re from my generation or older, you might think of Popeye’s canned green goo or bags of mushy blanched spinach from the freezer aisle. Or maybe spinach to you is the super-convenient (but not necessarily super-tasty) triple-washed California baby spinach available year-round at any grocery store. If you’re a gardener or diligent farmers market shopper, on the other hand, you might think of tasty frost-kissed spinach grown in the fall or the dense leaves of over-wintered spinach in early spring.
I, however, can’t help but think of my favorite spinach, the best of all spinaches, so special that most people have never even tried it: local winter spinach. While it doesn’t sound different from the aforementioned spinaches, I assure you, it is.
A product of its environment, winter spinach is grown in unheated, high-tunnel greenhouses, where it undergoes a freeze-thaw cycle almost every night, which concentrates its sugar content. This spinach is thickly savoy and crunchy, with flavor that is sweet, complex and rich with minerals. In the cold depths of dark, gray Wisconsin winter, the deep green color and incredible flavor of local winter spinach can breathe life into you and your meals.
A truly alive-tasting green salad in the middle of winter can almost make me cry. When you taste local winter spinach for the first time, you realize that here is something your body and palate has craved for months and you didn’t even know it. Be forewarned: After you try it, you will need more of it…and it is decidedly not easy to find. Only a few farms take the trouble of growing it, but find it you should. Just think of it as a cold-weather treasure hunt.
If winter spinach is so fantastic, why aren’t more farmers growing and selling it? Because it’s crazy hard work!
Growing vegetables is hard work, in general; but growing winter greens in unheated hightunnels is downright back (and knee) breaking. Most high-tunnel production is not conducive to mechanization, so almost all the work has to be done by hand. My friend Emily of Snow Goose Farm near Viola, Wis., sums it up: “Not many people want to crawl around on their knees every day and pick spinach one leaf at a time.”
One grower I used to buy spinach from at the Viroqua Food Co-op loved growing it but had to give it up after 5 years because his body simply couldn’t take it anymore. You must handpick winter spinach daily, leaf by leaf with a pair of scissors, on your hands and knees, crawling up and down 75- to 100-foot rows. Winter spinach grows so slowly that if you’re not methodical about picking the biggest leaves, they’ll shade the ground, and too-cold soil means new leaves will not grow. Floating row-cover must be spread over the spinach beds like a blanket every afternoon and diligently removed every morning. Remove it too late on a sunny morning and the plants fry; remove it too early and they stay too frozen to harvest. (Did I mention you have to do this daily?) After picking, the spinach must be washed and spun dry in small batches. Then, of course, the harvested spinach must be sold and delivered.
And all the while there may be a blizzard raging outside.
For most experienced vegetable farmers, if the physical aspect doesn’t turn them off, the timing and finances might. Most of the tillage, planting and harvesting has to be done by hand, and there’s the added cost to put up and maintain a high-tunnel.
Then there’s a very important but narrow window for planting, somewhere between late August and late September—the busiest time of the year for most vegetable growers. Too early and the spinach will go to seed and be worthless; too late and it won’t grow big enough to thrive when the cold weather hits. Timing is risky business, since that window will vary from year to year. Most vegetable farmers are already burning the candle at both ends in September; how are they going to find the time during the height of harvest season to prep and plant high tunnels by hand?
Because of its labor-intensiveness and slow growth, most winter spinach growers specialize in extended season production and are, very understandably, not willing to sell their winter spinach at a wholesale price that grocers are willing to pay. The Madison area’s largest and most veteran winter spinach producer, Snug Haven Farm of Belleville, instead focuses on direct sales through a winter spinach CSA (they’ll even ship it U.S. Priority mail!), at the Dane County Winter Farmers' Market, and to some lucky restaurants (Graze, L’Etoile and the Mermaid Café, to name a few).
Sweet Earth Farm of Gays Mills has a hightunnel as well as a solar greenhouse planted with winter spinach and other greens that they sell very locally to direct customers and the Kickapoo Exchange Food Co-op in Gays Mills.
If you’re lucky enough to get to the top of their waiting list, Snow Goose Farm, mentioned previously, has a winter greens CSA with spinach and a myriad of other tasty greens.
Lots of folks have put up high-tunnels in recent years thanks to a government incentive program, so let’s hope that some of them have the strong backs and maniacal work ethic to grow us more winter spinach!
Winter spinach makes the most amazing salads and is a refreshing addition to sandwiches, tacos, spring rolls or even on a fresh vegetable platter. Use it as a boat for dips or egg, chicken or tuna salads. Or barely wilt it in pasta, eggs, soups, stir-fries, sautés, sauces and curries by laying it on top of the dish at the very end of the cooking time and letting it steam a bit.
Poached Eggs & Winter Spinach Florentine: This is a dish we enjoy for breakfast or dinner. Be sure not to overcook the spinach! It's best when just barely wilted.
Winter Spinach Salad with Apples, Feta and Warm Bacon Vinaigrette: The warm bacon vinaigrette is a perfect complement to winter spinach, and combined with the apples and feta, this is a salad to satisfy a deprived wintertime stomach.
Winter Spinach & Microgreen Salad with Oyster Mushrooms and Tamari Vinaigrette by Jonnah Mellenthin Perkins, farmer at Vermont Valley Community Farm