Fortified foods have hijacked the food industry, turning a trip to the grocery store into an exercise in nutrition and pharmacology. Boxes shout “Whole Grains!” “Heart Healthy!” “High Protein!,” until every purchase is loaded with choices of monumental proportions. And yet, some of our most functional foods—spinach, for example—sit quietly in the produce department, no exclamation points to be found.

Packed with beta-carotene and vitamin K, spinach is an antioxidant and a boost to the immune system, plus it raises HDL, the “good” cholesterol. Even if it weren’t so healthful, spinach would still be a salad green of choice tossed with everything from poppy-seed dressing to pears, pecans, and Gorgonzola. With locally grown spinach now hitting the stores, look for flat leaf, Savoy (crinkly leaves), and semi-Savoy (moderately crinkly). Anything that’s yellow should be avoided, since as “vegetables get older they start to yellow,” explains David Petrocco Sr., president of Brighton’s Petrocco Farms, where 200 of the 2,500 acres are devoted to this dark, leafy green.

Color alone doesn’t guarantee freshness, cautions his daughter and co-owner Julie Marrone. “You can assume when [spinach is] bagged it’s got 10 to 12 days on it,” she says, unlike the spinach from her farm, which hits grocery stores like Safeway and King Soopers just two days after harvest. Wash leaves well and dress them lightly with extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice, and freshly cracked pepper for an easy spring dish, or try Radda Trattoria chef-owner Matthew Jansen’s take on this traditional Italian bread salad.

RECIPE: Panzanella (Serves 4)

  • ½ cup pine nuts
  • 1 loaf rustic Italian bread, cubed
  • 1 pound pancetta, diced
  • 8 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 8 tablespoons aged sherry vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • pinch black pepper
  • 2 pounds baby spinach, washed
  • ½ cup grana padano, shaved (you may substitute Parmigiano Reggiano)

In a 400° oven, toast pine nuts and bread cubes for 10 minutes on a cookie sheet.

Sauté pancetta until browned and crispy. Remove with slotted spoon and set aside on paper towels. In a small sauce pan, whisk olive oil, sherry vinegar, salt, and pepper. Heat mixture over medium heat. Place spinach in a large mixing bowl and toss with bread cubes, pine nuts, and pancetta. Dress contents of large mixing bowl with warm vinaigrette, slightly wilting the greens. Arrange on plate and finish with shaved grana padano.