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Farm Fresh: Fresh spinach dresses up elegantly for dinner

Thursday, June 10, 1999

Getting to know spinach is like learning your ABCs, because that's what the leafy green vegetable is chock full of -- vitamins A, B and C, not to mention calcium and potassium. And all at only 28 calories per cup raw. That Popeye was no dummy.

Whether you buy it bagged and prewashed at the supermarket, in loose leaf bundles at the markets or pick it fresh from your garden (my crop is just coming in), it's a terrific food value nutritionally. We like it best raw in salads and mixed with hot pastas, but it also makes a fast and savory side dish when sautéed with a little oil and garlic.

Buying: When buying fresh spinach -- either the flat- or curly-leaf variety -- look for crisp, dark green leaves with no wilting or signs of yellowing. Sort it as soon as you get it home and get rid of any rotting leaves because they will spoil the whole bunch. Store it loosely wrapped in paper towels and tightly sealed in plastic bags for up to three days in the refrigerator.

Yields: 1 1/2 pounds of fresh spinach will yield just 1 cup cooked, which serves two. Raw in salads, 1 1/2 pounds will serve four.

Washing: Because most spinach is cultivated in sandy soils, repeated washing is necessary to get rid of the grit. Prewashed, bagged spinach is remarkably grit-free, but at the cost of many mangled and bruised leaves which rot quickly. Opt for bundles of loose-leaf spinach when available and allow time for multiple rinsings.

And now, onto our recipe. Spinach Pesto and Chicken Couscous comes from the kitchens of Near East, the couscous and grain people. It's a complete one-dish meal -- poultry, spinach and starch -- that comes together in 20 minutes and boasts lots of flavor. And it's low in fat. -- Tested by Betsy Kline

Spinach Pesto and Chicken Couscous

2 teaspoons olive oil, divided
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 pound skinned, boned chicken breast halves (about 2), cubed
3 cloves garlic, very thinly sliced
2 cups lightly packed chopped fresh spinach leaves
1 (5.8-ounce) package Near East Parmesan couscous
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil

Pour 1 teaspoon olive oil into a medium saucepan, place over medium heat until hot. Add walnuts, sauté 2 to 3 minutes or until fragrant and toasted. Remove from saucepan; set aside.

Heat remaining teaspoon oil in saucepan; add chicken and garlic and sauté 4 or 5 minutes or until chicken is browned and no longer pink inside.

Add 1 1/4 cups water, spinach and contents of the Spice Sack; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 1 minute. Stir in couscous, cover and remove from heat. Let stand 5 minutes.

Add basil and walnuts, fluff with a fork. Makes 3 to 4 servings.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 290 calories; 8.6 grams fat; 22 grams protein; 33.5 grams carbohydrates; 3.2 grams fiber; 37 mg cholesterol; 2 mg iron; 442 mg sodium; 92 mg calcium.

If you have a fruit or vegetable that you would like to see featured between now and Sept. 30, please call food editor Suzanne Martinson at 412-263-1760 or e-mail us ataburnett@post-gazette.com. or bkline@post-gazette.com. We're also looking for easy-to-make, quick recipes that highlight the fabulous flavors of fresh produce. Send to Farm Fresh, PG Food, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222.

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