What's in Season: Swiss Chard

If you were on a quiz show and they asked you, for a million dollars, where Swiss chard came from originally, what would you say? Well, it’s kind of a trick question, because it sure sounds like it’s from Switzerland. To win the big pot, you’d need to know that Swiss chard came to us from the Mediterranean region. The Swiss moniker came about when 19th century seed catalogs took to calling the chard plant “Swiss,” to differentiate it from French spinach varieties.

As well as having a mysteriously misleading name, chard goes by as many aliases as a film noir bad guy, so if you read about silverbeet, leaf beet, seakale beet, perpetual spinach, and mangold, they are talking Swiss chard.

The word “beet” keeps cropping up because chard is very closely related to beets, and is a kissing cousin to another nutrition superstar, quinoa. In fact, chard is basically a beet that has been bred to have fat, juicy stems and big leaves instead of channeling most of its energy into big roots. Some ancient Sicilians who loved beet greens are credited with creating the plant. It may seem weird now, but early growers prized the stem itself more than the leafy part, and grew chards with wide, crunchy stems, which upstaged the leafy bits in dishes.

Like beets, chard is a bonanza of nutrients, giving many of the other dark leafy greens a run for the money when it comes to antioxidants. You can think of it as the best of both worlds: beet greens and spinach all rolled into one. In fact, chard is very close in nutritional value to its relative, spinach. Chard is a little higher in C, but lower in folate than spinach. Chard is a great friend to your bones, with vitamin K and magnesium and some calcium.

When selecting chard, look for the snappiest, most vibrant leaves and stems. You’ll find white stemmed, red stemmed, and a rainbow bunch that contains white, red and yellow stem chards. Sometimes when I plan to use chard in a tomato-free pasta dish that will be stored for a day, I pick white so the red pigments don’t seep into the pasta as it sits. The colors are antioxidant rich, so choose them if you want a burst of color.

To store your lovely chard when you get home, wrap it in a paper towel and put it in a plastic bag, so that it’s kept humid, but not wet. To prep, immerse and swish in plenty of cold water, then dry in a spinner or on towels. Strip the leaves from the stems with your fingers, holding the stem in one hand and ripping with the other, or you can lay them flat on the cutting board and slice along the stem.

How to prepare chard

Stems and leaves need to be treated differently. Looking back to its early days, chard stems have always been a matter of dispute. Those early connoisseurs grew it just for the crisp, expansive stems, which can be boiled, steamed or stir fried solo. Nowadays many people think they should throw the stems away, since the leaves are the main draw. A middle ground that wastes less, is to add the stems to the pot or pan a few minutes earlier, then add the quicker-cooking chopped leaves later.

Blanch and Boil

The hefty leaves of chard are like all leaves, made up of open cells that will collapse when cooked. That is why a huge pile of leafy greens will cook down to a fifth its size, and shrink even more if you wring it out. Chard becomes a handy ingredient when you blanch it first, which keeps it moist and tender. Just drop the chopped stems into a pot of boiling water and wait one minute before dropping in the leafy parts. Bring it back to a boil and cook for about a minute, just until the leaves are tender (leaves will darken a shade). Drain and rinse with cold water. Squeeze out the leaves and you have a ready ingredient for everything from sandwiches to pasta, lasagna or a frittata or even scrambled eggs.

If you are looking for a pretty presentation, you can blanch the whole leaves, stems included, dry them well, and use them like grape leaves. Wrap cooked grains, or even an herb smeared chicken breast or fish filet to bake in a covered casserole.

Sauté, roast or even grill

Of course, you don’t have to blanch, as chard loves a quick sauté in a hot pan with flavorful olive oil, or a spot in a stir-fry. You can even roast it in a hot oven, like the popular kale chips: just toss with a bit of oil and roast for about 10-15 minutes at 350 F. Some grill buffs even grill it in a similar way, with oil and a little heat.

Soups

Chard also slips easily into soups; you can skip blanching and just add it for the last five minutes or so of cooking. Spaghetti sauce can become extra veggie-rich with a few handfuls of chopped chard. Beans and greens just go together, so once you have a pot of beans cooked, stir in chard for a simple peasant stew, and you can make it into just about anything, from chili to curry. Tender baby chard can be tossed in salads, or shredded into slaw, uncooked.

In almost anything calling for cooked greens

The Mediterranean roots of the Swiss chard are a tip off that it will taste great with lusty flavors. Garlic, chiles, olives and tomatoes stand up to the minerally, vegetal flavors of the big green leaves. Of course, any cuisine that cooks greens has great flavors to go with chard, from the spices of India, the soy/sweet and sour of Asia, to spicy south of the border tastes.

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