Remember the cartoon character Popeye?  The one who was “strong to the finish” because he ate his spinach?  October must have been his favorite time of year, as it has been designated as National Spinach-Lovers’ Month. 

I learned to eat many different types of greens when I was a child.  It seemed like my mother loved them all.  Kale, collards, mustard, turnip greens, and even pokeweed were often served as side dishes at family mealtimes.  Notice what is missing?  Spinach.  For some reason, Mom rarely chose it as the green item on her table.  Of course, we always had to have something green, plus a starch (such as corn, potatoes, rice, or grits) to accompany the main dish.  After I was married, I found out that my husband, Bob, loved spinach, especially when it came from a can.  Personally, I prefer it either fresh or frozen.

Popeye may have found power by swallowing a can of spinach, but the strength I need this time of year certainly can’t be gained from consuming certain greens.  I used to anticipate October; it was my favorite month.  I still enjoy the things I looked forward to – crisp fall days with brightly  colored foliage and getting apples from the orchard.  Now those things are tempered by the memories that come flooding back each autumn.  My husband departed this life seven years ago on the fifteenth of October. 

I thought that as time passed by, the grief wouldn’t be as sharp.  I thought that I would be able to let go of the identity I knew as Bob’s wife and learn to be my own person.  I wanted to finally find me again.  The “me” who is able to stop viewing myself as broken in half.  Who ceases to see the future in terms of what I have lost.  I want to get up in the morning and greet the new day with joy in facing what the Lord has in store for me instead of dreading more time spent without Bob.

Slowly, oh, so slowly, I can sense a transformation taking place.  The edges of grief are duller than they used to be.  They still cut, but not quite as deep.  I feel more ready to let go of what I used to have, as it’s like holding onto a rope when the other end is not attached to anything.  I have clutched that rope so long that it is scary to think of releasing it.  A comment made by a friend in the same struggle caused me to realize that I am really grasping something that isn’t there.

One thing I know for sure, the Source of my strength is the Lord.  He has not ever forsaken me, even during my lowest moments.  He has lifted me up and helped me take one step at a time.  My trust in Him to see me through has kept me going.  The days of deep grief are fewer and further between, although I still have my moments.  My hope is to be strong to the finish because, as Psalm 27 states in verse 7, “The LORD is my strength and my shield; My heart trusts in Him, and I am helped; Therefore my heart exults, And with my song I shall thank Him.”

No one will be surprised to find that this week’s recipes all include spinach.  I selected three different recipe categories: Salad, soup, and sandwich.  Each dish turned out to be tasty in its own right.  If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be the Chicken and Gnocchi Soup. (Gnocchi is often pronounced NOK-ee.) I had never used gnocchi before, nor can I remember ever having the little potato dumplings.  They can be found in the pasta section of the grocery store.

Avocado Strawberry Spinach Salad with Poppy Seed Dressing 

6 cups fresh baby spinach

1 pint strawberries, hulled and sliced

1 avocado, diced

4 ounces crumbled gorgonzola or blue cheese, optional

1/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted

Half a small red onion, thinly sliced

Poppy seed dressing (recipe below)

Toss all ingredients together with desired amount of dressing until combined. Serve immediately.

Poppy Seed Dressing

1/2 cup avocado oil (or any oil, such as olive oil)

3 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar

2 tablespoons honey

1 tablespoon poppy seeds

Pinch of ground dry mustard (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

Whisk all ingredients together until combined.  Add a pinch of salt and pepper, or more to taste.

Chicken and Gnocchi Soup

3 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

3/4 cup onion, diced

1/2 cup carrots, diced

1/2 cup celery, diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

Coarse salt and fresh black pepper

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

4 cups chicken broth

1-1/2 cups half & half

2 cups cooked white meat chicken, shredded or cut into small bites

1 pound potato gnocchi

3 cups fresh baby spinach, stems removed

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil

Fresh grated Parmesan and/or Romano cheese, for serving

In large soup pot or Dutch oven, heat butter and oil together over medium heat. Add onion, carrots, celery and garlic. Season with salt and pepper; cook until tender over medium-low heat about 10 minutes, stirring often.

Sprinkle flour into pot and stir into vegetables; cook 3 minutes, stirring often. Stir in chicken broth 1 cup at a time, followed by half & half.

Add chicken. Bring to a simmer; maintain for 20 minutes, stirring often. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Cook gnocchi separately according to package directions. Add them to the soup along with the spinach.  Simmer until spinach is wilted. Stir in basil. Serve with grated cheese.

Perfect Pita Pockets

2 cups spinach, chopped
1 cup sliced red bell pepper
1 cup grated carrot
1/4 cup sliced green onion
3 tablespoons plain yogurt
3 tablespoons spoonable ranch dressing
1/2 teaspoon dillweed
1/4 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
3 pita pockets, halved
6 ounces ham, sliced

In a medium bowl, combine chopped spinach, thinly sliced red bell pepper, grated carrots, thinly sliced green onions, yogurt, ranch dressing, and dill weed; mix well, cover, and chill. Just before serving, stir in shredded mozzarella cheese. Line halved pita pockets with sliced ham and spoon the salad mixture evenly inside.

Makes 6 servings.