Spinach has long been a nutritional darling of Americans. That's why, during the FDA's recent warning about fresh bagged spinach, many people felt at a loss as to what to serve in place of their favorite dark leafy green.
The spinach scare, which began after an outbreak of illness caused by a strain of the E. coli bacteria, appears to be over. But if you're still trying to think outside the spinach box or bag, there are plenty of lesser-known -- yet equally tasty -- greens that can replace spinach in your favorite dishes.
Spinach Alternatives for Cold Dishes
Arugula, which has a peppery, mustard-like flavor, can be a great alternative to raw spinach, says Robert Schueller, public relations director for Melissa’s Produce.
"It has many similarities to spinach, but you will find a lighter, tender taste to these greens,” he says in an email interview.
Romaine lettuce is available loose or bagged. And if the label says it's triple washed, you can use it right out of the bag. Use Romaine in place of spinach in salads and sandwiches.
A 2-cup serving contains 16 calories, 2 grams fiber, 42% of the Daily Value for vitamin A, 36% for vitamin C, and 38% for folic acid.
Escarole looks like sturdy, thicker butter lettuce with curled edges and has a refreshing, slightly bitter flavor, Cathy Thomas notes in her book, Melissa’s Great Book of Produce.
Curly endive has a stronger, bitter flavor and looks a little like green leaf lettuce. Both escarole and endive contain about 17 calories, 29% Daily Value for vitamin A, 36% for vitamin E, and 9% vitamin C per 2 cups of fresh leaves.
Watercress, an herb that's a member of the mustard family, has small, peppery flavored leaves. Watercress contains 8 calories and 1 gram of fiber per 2-cup serving, plus 46% of the Daily Value for vitamin A, 39% for vitamin C, and 8% for calcium.
Spinach Alternatives for Hot Dishes
While they may require slightly longer cooking times, there are several readily available alternatives for spinach in cooked dishes.
Schueller recommends trying chard or kale.
"On top of the fact that both of these greens are nutritionally dense, they can also make your recipe very colorful and creative," he says.
The leaves of red or green chard, when raw, have a beet-like flavor. A half-cup serving of cooked Swiss chard has 18 calories, 2 grams fiber, 39% of the Daily Value for vitamin A, 21% for vitamin C, 11% vitamin E, 24% for magnesium, and 14% for potassium. One-half cup of cooked kale contains 18 calories, 1.3 grams fiber, 18% Daily Value for vitamin A, 46% for vitamin C, 9% for calcium, and 12% for magnesium.
Collard or turnip greens can also fill in for spinach in hot dishes. Turnip greens contain 14 calories, 2.5 grams fiber, 57% Daily Value for vitamin A, 26% for vitamin C, 8% for vitamin E, 21% for folate, and 10% for calcium per 1/2 cup of cooked greens. Collard greens contain 25 calories, 3 grams fiber, 42% Daily Value for vitamin A, 23% for vitamin C, 22% for folic acid, and 11% for calcium per 1/2 cup of cooked greens.
And if you're still worried about spinach safety, don't forget about canned and frozen spinach, which were not implicated in the E. coli outbreaks, according to the FDA. The FDA also points out that the strain of E. coli involved (0157:H7) can be killed by cooking for 15 seconds at 160° Fahrenheit.
It's important to use caution to ensure the safety of all your leafy greens, experts say.
"When buying freshly cut produce in general, make sure they are properly refrigerated at the point of purchase, look for an expiration date (if available), and look for obvious signs that it hasn’t been handled properly, like browning or bruising," says Shelly Feist, executive director of the nonprofit Partnership for Food Safety and Education.
At home, Feist recommends rinsing all produce (except the pre-washed bagged type) under clean, running tap water to wash away invisible pathogens.
If you're ready to give spinach substitutes a try, here's a salad recipe that incorporates both escarole and baby arugula.
Pecan & Gorgonzola Greens Salad
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as 1 cup "side salad green, raw vegetables alone or with fruits" + 1 tablespoon nuts OR 1 1/2 cups raw veggies + 1 tablespoon nuts
4 cups escarole, washed, patted dry, and torn into bite-size pieces
4 cups baby arugula, washed and patted dry
1 head fennel bulb, thinly sliced
1/4 cup pecan pieces, toasted
1/4 cup Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup dried cranberries
4 tablespoons light bottled balsamic vinaigrette (with more on the table in case someone would like to add more)
- In 4 bowls, arrange in each, a mixture of the escarole, arugula and endive slices. Top each with pecans, Gorgonzola, and cranberries.
- Drizzle a tablespoon over each bowl and serve!
Yield: 4 servings
Recipe provided by Elaine Magee; © 2006 Elaine Magee