Flash in the Pan 

The joys of chlorophyll

Chlorophyll is quite a molecule. In the sequence of reactions known as photosynthesis, chlorophyll is what catches the incoming photon of sunlight and gets that party started. Without photosynthesis, life as we know it would not be possible. The mud season that follows winter would never be superseded by green growth. Tasty vegetarians, like cows, would have nothing to eat.

In addition to supplying the entire biosphere with energy, on a personal level chlorophyll is good eating. Of all the plants we consume, spinach contains the most chlorophyll. Spinach also tastes the most like meat, in my opinion, perhaps thanks to the fact that chlorophyll is nearly identical to hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying molecule in red blood cells. Spinach also contains high levels of iron, magnesium and folate, all of which, like chlorophyll, are considered "blood building."

Chlorophyll has become a darling of health-food devotees, praised for its antioxidant and energy-boosting qualities, among many others. Recent scientific evidence supports some of these "folk" uses. The body apparently does convert chlorophyll to hemoglobin, which has long been suspected and might help explain the meaty vibe I get from spinach. Meanwhile, several new studies suggest that chlorophyll may play a significant role in thwarting some forms of cancer.

It's been known for years that molecules called chlorophyllins, which are made from chlorophyll, offer protection against cancers caused by aflatoxin, a carcinogen that comes from mold. They do so by essentially grabbing the carcinogens and showing them the door. The back door, that is, via the body's excretory pathway. This eviction prevents the aflatoxin from being absorbed into the body, where it could have done damage.

Chlorophyll and chlorophyllin are very similar molecules, and ever since the chlorophyllin studies came out it's been speculated that chlorophyll from a diet high in green vegetables could offer similar protection against aflatoxin, via a similar mechanism. Recent research at the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University offers evidence that it does.

Now research is being done, at OSU and elsewhere, to determine if other carcinogens can be similarly foiled, either by chlorophyllin in pill form or chlorophyll from foodusually spinach. Some of the carcinogens being studied are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are found in smoke and air pollution, and heterocyclic amines, the carcinogens in burned meat. One lab has reported that dietary spinach inhibits the proliferation of rat colon cancer cells induced by heme, a molecule found in red meat that correlates with an increased risk of colon cancer.

This research supports the idea of eating leaves with your meat—the darker, more chlorophyll-rich leaves the better. After spinach, parsley and watercress have decent amounts of chlorophyll as well. In order to have chlorophyll on patrol all the time, you would need to be noshing the rabbit food with regularity—which might in turn make your bowels more regular. Indeed, chlorophyll is only one of the many reasons why greens are some of the best things you can eat.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

Spinach is one of the few greens that's equally delicious raw, cooked or wilted. Cooking vegetables for long periods of time does alter their chlorophyll, but it isn't clear whether this impacts the molecule's carcinogen-binding activity.

Raw plant cells are alive and buzzing with enzymes, and the general rule with vegetables is the rawer the better. But sometimes you just want to cook the pants off some spinach and make a big pot of saag paneer. I know I do.

"Saag Paneer" means "spinach and cheese," but it might as well be Indian for "chlorophyll stew," so packed it is with pureed leaves. It's easy to make the homemade cheese that goes in it, or you can fake it and use feta or queso fresco. If you live near an Indian grocery store, you can buy genuine Indian paneer cheese.

Some aficionados swear that saag paneer isn't right if it doesn't contain mustard greens as well as spinach. Kale, wild nettles, turnip greens, dandelion, lamb's quarter and other edible weeds can be used with spinach as well.

To make the paneer, heat half a gallon of whole milk on medium/high in a thick-bottomed pan, stirring often with a rubber spatula to prevent scalding the milk. When it begins to boil, turn off the heat and add four tablespoons of lemon juice, stirring steadily. The milk should separate into watery whey with thick curds floating on top. If the whey remains creamy, add another tablespoon or two of lemon juice. Pour the curdled milk through a colander lined with folded cheesecloth. The whey can be used for other purposes, like making ricotta cheese, or be fed to animals. Tie the corners of the cheesecloth together and hang, so it drains and the curds settle into a hard cheese. Squeeze out any remaining moisture before using.

Now, wash your spinach and other greens, removing the stems from tougher plants like kale, nettles or mustard greens. For each half-pound of greens, chop one or two jalapeno peppers and a teaspoon of ginger. Cook the peppers and ginger for a few minutes in a quarter-inch of water. Add a half-teaspoon of salt, then add the greens. Cook for five minutes, covered, stirring occasionally. Let the greens cool, then puree in a blender.

Cut the cheese into cubes and lightly brown them in a pan with oil or ghee; paneer cheese won't melt.

In a separate pan, with oil or ghee on medium heat, add a pinch of fenugreek seeds, a pinch of cumin powder and a pinch or more of coriander powder, and cook for 30 seconds. Add a chopped onion and some tomato—either fresh minced or a quarter-cup catsup or a half-cup canned—and one or two chopped garlic cloves. Cook until it's integrated and soupy, then add the cheese and cook until the cheese heats up. Then add the pureed greens. Let it all cook together for a few minutes, and your saag paneer is done.

Saag paneer is typically served with basmati or jasmine rice. It also goes great, if less traditionally, with a perfectly burnt steak.

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