North Fork Chef: Dishes that Popeye might recommend

I’m Popeye the sailor man,
I’m Popeye the sailor man.
I’m strong to the finich
Cause I eats me spinach,
I’m Popeye the sailor man.
— famous cartoon lyrics

Chenopods are a subfamily of the flowering plant family known as amaranthaceae. They are commonly called the goosefoot family of plants and consist mostly of weeds. But the goosefoot family also includes four of the healthiest plant foods known to man: spinach, Swiss chard, beets and quinoa. These foods continue to show an increasing number of health benefits not readily available from other food families. Betalin pigments, carotenoids and antioxidants are unique to them, along with many vitamins, minerals, proteins and dietary fiber.

Quinoa, a seed that resembles grain, was of great nutritional importance in pre-Columbian civilizations such as the Incas. Today, it is prized for its high protein content and the fact that these are complete proteins containing all of the essential amino acids. In addition, quinoa is gluten-free and a great source of fiber.

We are well familiar with the benefits of spinach, thanks to Popeye, but Swiss chard and beets offer much culinary diversity along with their nutritional values. Here are some ideas for including these chenopods in your diet:

Asiago Spinach Cakes
Remove the stems from 1 pound of fresh farm stand spinach. Wash leaves thoroughly in cold water and drain. Chop the leaves coarsely with a chef’s knife and place them in small batches in a food processor. Pulse to chop fine and put them in a large bowl.

In a separate bowl, combine 2 eggs, 1 cup ricotta cheese and 1 cup shredded Asiago cheese. Season with 1 tablespoon minced garlic, 1 teaspoon grated nutmeg, 1 tablespoon coarse salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Stir this mixture with a wooden spoon and fold in the finely chopped spinach.

Spray 4 to 6 porcelain ramekins (depending upon size) with no-stick and divide the spinach mixture between them, pressing it down firmly with a spoon. Place the ramekins in a 400-degree oven and cook for 25 minutes. Remove and cool on a rack for 15 minutes, cut around the edges with a knife and turn out onto a plate. Serve as is with an entrée or make a bechamel sauce to serve over them for a first course.

Serves 4-6.

Sautéed Beets and Swiss Chard
Purchase 1 bunch of beets with the leaves on and 1 large bunch of Swiss chard (either red or white stems). Trim the leaves off the beets and place in cold water. Remove the leaves from the stems of chard and place the leaves in the water with the beet leaves.

Rinse the chard stems and chop into half-inch dice. Rinse the beets, leaving the skins on but trimming off the root end and the stem end. Cut the beets into quarters (or sixths if large) and place them in a steamer pan on the stove. Bring the water to a boil and steam the beets for 20 minutes or until just tender. Remove the beets from the pan and slip off the skins and set aside.

Meanwhile, remove the beet/chard leaves from the cold water and drain in a colander. Chop the leaves coarsely into 2-inch squares and set aside. In a large sauté pan, add 2 tablespoons canola oil and place on medium heat. Add 1/2 cup chopped shallots and 2 tablespoons sliced garlic to the pan and cook until soft. Add the chopped chard stems and quartered beets and cook for 5 minutes. Add all of the leaves along with 1/4 cup white wine and 1 tablespoon cider vinegar. Season with 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes, 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper.

Turn the heat up high and toss the ingredients together until the leaves are wilted, about 5 minutes. Remove the beets and greens to a serving platter and boil the remaining liquid down before pouring it over the vegetables. Garnish with a little horseradish on the side if desired.

Serves 4.

Quinoa & Brown Rice Entrée Salad
Bring 1 quart of water to boil in each of two separate saucepans. Add 1 cup brown rice to one pan and 1 cup quinoa to the other. Let them cook (like pasta) at high heat, stirring every few minutes. The rice will take about 45 minutes to cook and the quinoa about 25. When tender, drain each and combine in a large bowl.
Slice 1 red onion and sauté in 1 tablespoon olive oil until soft, and set aside. Combine in a bowl 1/2 cup orange juice, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1 tablespoon minced garlic, 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Whisk in 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil and set aside.

Toast 1 cup of pistachio nuts in a dry sauté pan and add to the rice/quinoa mixture. Finely slice 4 scallions and add to the mixture. Add the sautéed red onions along with the dressing. Dice 1 cup dried apricots and add to the mixture along with the zest of 1 orange. Peel the orange and cut into small segments for garnish. Check for seasoning and serve.

If desired, garnish the top with a sliced ripe avocado that has been tossed in lemon juice, and sprinkle with chopped cilantro.

Serves 4-6.

Swiss Chard, Potato and Chickpea Stew
Soak 1 pound dried chickpeas overnight. Drain the soaked chickpeas and simmer in 2 quarts water until tender, about 45 minutes.

Remove the leaves from 2 large bunches of Swiss chard and wash in cold water; save the stems. Drain and chop the leaves coarsely and dice the stems, keeping them separate. Slice 1 pound of red potatoes, leaving the skins on.
In a large pot of boiling water, cook the chard stems for 2 minutes and add the chopped leaves. Cook 2 minutes and drain, plunging them into cold ice water to cool. Drain and set aside.

In a large sauté pan, add 2 tablespoons canola oil and turn up the heat. Add 1 sliced Spanish onion and cook for 3 minutes. Add the sliced potatoes and continue cooking until potatoes start to brown. Add 1 tablespoon minced garlic, 1 tablespoon paprika, 1 teaspoon turmeric, 1 tablespoon coarse salt and 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes.

Add the cooked chickpeas and the drained chard (squeeze out all liquid). Add 1 cup vegetable broth and cook, covered, until potatoes are tender. Check for seasoning and serve in bowls.

Serves 4.

John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. Email: [email protected].