A Cook's Garden: The Versatility of Heat-Proof Malabar Spinach

Malabar spinach, which is unrelated to regular spinach, won't shrivel when cooked.
Malabar spinach, which is unrelated to regular spinach, won't shrivel when cooked. (By Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)
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By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, September 10, 2009

One way to keep gardening fresh and exciting is to grow a few new crops each year. These might just be new varieties of old favorites, but I also like to try edible plants that I have never grown. Not all do well or are worth growing again. The flavor of a melon called Collective Farm Woman proved decidedly pallid. The tart, spiny orange fruits of the African-horned cucumber thrived but could barely be described as food. I had bought the packet at a seed store in Paris, and perhaps something was lost in translation.

This year's experiment with Malabar spinach had a happier ending. I was eager to test its much-touted ability to do what few leafy greens can: withstand summer's heat without withering or going to seed. Because I knew this to be a vining crop, I sowed it in a row at the base of a utilitarian wire-mesh fence. The seedlings that came up were beautiful, with sturdy crimson stems and fleshy leaves. They held back their growth during a long, cool rainy spell in early summer, then leapt forth and climbed the fence athletically as soon as the days turned warm.

The first leaves I sampled were large, dark green and meaty. I bit one and found the flavor quite acceptable, a bit grassy with a slight lemony tang. The leaves had a slippery inner layer, a bit like that of okra but much less effusive. I sliced a few into a salad, and they added a pleasant taste and substance, but in cooking they shone even more. They failed to shrivel like regular spinach, to which they are unrelated. They rivaled even chard and kale in their ability to maintain their form. I played with the leaves, removing their stiff central ribs, dipping the leaves for 15 seconds in simmering water, dotting them with a savory dip and forming them into rolls and packets for hors d'oeuvres. Try that with spinach!

Because Malabar is in southwestern India, I tried dropping both the leaves, slivered, and the numerous tender vine tips into a curry, and into a coconut-milk-based soup, which was thickened a bit by the greens' slight viscosity. The plant became my new "everything" green, one you can pick and add to any cooked dish that needs a nutritious green element. My favorite uses were the simplest: chopped and sauteed in butter, then salted. Malabar spinach is as tasty a side dish as you could want and perfect as a bed under a helping of meat or fish.

Even without its culinary versatility, I would grow this handsome, heat-proof vine again. Not all varieties are red-stemmed, but the trait does make it even more ornamental. I will give it a more prominent place next year, on an arbor, perhaps, to climb undaunted toward the summer sun.

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