The red and the green of first harvest 

Spinach and rhubarb make the perfect dining couple

Never mind Popeye the Sailorman's habit of famously popping the entire contents of a can of spinach down his gullet to pump up his biceps and down his personal "fight club" nemesis, Bluto. You, too, can grow strong on a fresh spinach habit this spring without planting a single seed as the first of the fresh local greens turns up at stores and market gardens.

Spinach is a delightfully tasty and versatile biennial. A member of the beet family, it was originally cultivated in central Asia - Persia, says Larousse Gastronomique . In the late Middle Ages, Arabs brought it to Europe where it was soon preferred over its smaller-leafed relatives, such as lamb's-quarters and orache - arrache to the French - both of which have now naturalized in B.C. (more on those later). Chard is another distant relative.

Just to confuse everyone, scores of edible imposters not related to spinach bear the same name. Malabar spinach is a climbing plant native to Asia and very heat tolerant. Water spinach, another Asian native, is a relative of the sweet potato. New Zealand spinach is actually related to the succulent known as ice plant, which is also edible - a fact that might come in handy at the end of the world if you're stranded on a beach and starving.

But since we still have oodles of farms producing spinach, you won't need to resort to ice plants. Plus you'll find the former a much better choice for a dish like the classic French spinach salad, which Larousse describes this way: Plunge the whole spinach into boiling water for a few seconds only. Cool under running water, drain and dry in a cloth. Place the leaves in a salad bowl and sprinkle with coarsely chopped hard-boiled egg and dress with oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. C'est tout!

Southern California restaurants dish up a twist on this: a wilted spinach salad in which fried bacon bits, still in their hot oil, are tossed into a bed of freshly washed spinach and thinly sliced sweet onions. Add vinegar and seasoning to taste.

In On Food and Cooking , Harold McGee tells us that French classic cuisine likens spinach to cire-vierge, or virgin beeswax, because it's capable of receiving any impression or effect compared to most other vegetables, which impose their taste upon the dish.

In terms of nutrition, especially when it's farm-fresh, spinach is hard to beat. Why do you think Popeye could pop a guy three times his size? According to McGee, it's an excellent source of Vitamin A, and phenolic antioxidants and compounds that reduce potential cancer-causing damage to our DNA.

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