Growing up, my family ate one kind of salad. It was one built off iceberg lettuce, almost always included cucumbers, beefsteak tomatoes, carrots and celery, and sometimes it was topped with sliced olives from a can. Dressing options were usually Ranch, French, or Italian. We ate this several times a week, year-round until the Costco opened and other vegetables became available for a reasonable price. Once that happened, romaine lettuce replaced the iceberg and peppers were added to mix. For a long time, my mind had a hard time believing a salad could include things other than what I ate throughout my childhood.
Then one summer in college, I was visiting one of my best friends, Mo, at her family’s house in Beaverton, OR. Her house had a milkshake maker on the counter, and cookies were always coming out of the oven. I loved going there because it was such a warm home and I was treated like I was a part of the family (even earning refrigerator privileges from Mo’s dad). I also loved eating there, because Mo’s mom always made salads with things I didn’t know could go together. One salad in particular was a spinach and strawberry salad with a Champagne Vinegar-based dressing. I asked a million questions about it, which is probably why Sharon sent me the recipe in the mail shortly thereafter. Throughout all my many moves, that recipe card remained front and center in my kitchen as a reminder that it’s okay to experiment with food, especially salads.
Fast-forward to me at the nursery a couple months ago. I was picking out starter plants to put in my raised bed and saw some healthy looking spinach plants that were calling my name. Without even thinking, I added two of the plants to my collection with the hopes of being one of those people who makes salads from the greens in her garden. I brought my assortment of plants home, and put them in the ground the next day.
Shortly thereafter—maybe three weeks or so—Scott said, “I’m a little freaked out by how fast the spinach is growing.” Upon further inspection, we realized the spinach was some sort of climbing vine. At this point, I took the little tag out of the ground to read what kind of spinach I had planted. Malabar Spinach, it said. A quick look into my new book about organic gardening (The All-New Illustrated Guide to Gardening) and I found this:
Spinach grows well only in cool regions. In warmer areas gardeners often substitute Malabar spinach or New Zealand spinach, both of which are unrelated to true spinach but taste somewhat like it and are used like it…. Malabar spinach is a glossy-leaved vine that does well in extremely hot weather. Trained to grow up a fence or trellis, it takes little space and produces edible leaves in about 70 days. (pg. 475-6)
So, building a trellis was now on my to do list as I had planted it in the middle of my raised bed.
Once that was done, I realized that our plants would not need 70 days and that the leaves were ready to harvest after only being in the ground for 45 days or so. Not having eaten this kind of spinach before, I didn’t know how it would fare in salads. It’s not fragile like the Viking spinach I thought I had planted—it’s durable like kale. Which gave me an idea. One of my new favorite salads is a farro, kale, coconut concoction from Heidi Swanson’s Super Natural Every Day. This dish stands out because of its amazing dressing. I decided to channel Sharon by creating some kind of spinach & fruit salad and modify Heidi Swanson’s dressing to go with it.
So far, I haven’t seen local strawberries around (they’re all from California), so I wandered around Down to Earth yesterday looking for some kind of local fruit that might pair well with my Tarzan-like spinach. I saw local tangerines and thought about how those sweet and tangy fruit slices might work even better than strawberries. I was right. The texture, size, and taste of a tangerine slice was a perfect match for Malabar spinach.
- 1/3 cup of your good olive oil*
- 1-2 Tbsp(s) of soy sauce – I used San-J’s Reduced Sodium Organic Tamari Soy Sauce (which is a soy sauce verified by the NON-GMO project)
- 1 Tbsp of white wine vinegar
- 1 tsp of toasted sesame oil
- Optional: a few dashes of hot sauce. I used a Japanese ginger sauce called Shoga Sco that I picked up in downtown Honolulu.
- 8-10 hearty spinach leaves, such as Malabar spinach
- 1-2 tangerines (use the sweetest orange available if tangerines aren’t in season)
- 1/3 cup of shredded daikon radish
- 1/4 cup of pumpkin seeds (I used tamarind-flavored seeds)
*Every kitchen should have two kinds of olive oil. One used for cooking and one for tasting. The cooking oil can be the cheap bottle we all pick up at Trader Jo’s, but the tasting oil should be one that is good enough to dip bread in or make a salad dressing out of. If you ever get a chance to taste multiple kinds of olive oil, do it. You’ll be amazed at the variety. R. Field (Foodland) in Kailua currently has an olive oil tasting station and I tasted several varieties before I found the winner of my current tasting oil – Las Brisas, an unfiltered, organic Spanish oil made from Arbequina olives.
To prepare, mix the ingredients for the dressing in a large bowl and set aside. Wash the spinach and cut into small pieces that are easy to eat (less than one inch). Add the spinach, shredded radish, and pumpkin seeds to the bowl with the dressing and toss. Peel the tangerine(s) and separate the slices. Cut them in half with a sharp knife and squeeze out any seeds. Plate the spinach mix, then top with the seedless slices of tangerine you’ve prepared. Enjoy by itself, or along side Heidi’s Farro, Kale, Coconut warm salad.
Thank you to Sharon for sharing your unique salads with me and inspiring me to use tangerines as a potential salad ingredient. And, thank you to Ko’olau Farmers for teaching me to read the labels on the plants I buy. This turned into a happy mistake, but had I known this was a climbing vine I would have planted it in a different place instead of in the middle of my raised bed. Lesson learned – not all “spinach” is the same, but there is a perfect fruit for all varieties.