Cheers for Swiss Chard

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Classic green chard seedlings.

In many kitchens, Swiss chard is rather like comedian Rodney Dangerfield – it don’t get no respect. As usual, I’m marching to my own drummer on this one. I’ve mentioned before that I’m interested in productive veggies that taste good. If they’re also easy to grow, so much the better. Chard meets all my requirements.

While you might not think it to look at them, chard and beets are closely related. The similarity between the leaves is the give-away. In fact, chard is also called silver beet, beet spinach, seakale beet (the leaves do look a lot like kale), leaf beet and beet spinach. No one seems to know where the Swiss part of the name came from; the plant actually originated in Sicily. The standard chard is exemplified by Lucullus and Fordhook Giant – white stems, light to dark green leaves and about three feet tall. Both are heirloom varieties and at least 100 years old. Rainbow chard has colored stems. Bright Lights is the most well-known. I think the plain green ones taste better. The leaves of Swiss chard may be slightly crinkled or deeply ribbed, more like kale. The ribbed leaves tend to hide bits of dirt and insects, so they take a little more time to wash.

Chard has to be one of the easiest plants to grow. Pretty much any soil type suits these plants. It grows in full sun (which makes the leaves a darker green) or part shade. Occasionally nibbled on by insects or small birds. It tolerates both heat and cold quite well. In my garden it overwinters and will produce greens well ahead of anything I plant in the spring. The plants that overwinter will also produce “flowers” and seed stalks for next year’s crop.

This vegetable is quick-growing, with maturity rates around 55 to 60 days. You can often steal a few leaves from each plant even earlier. For the plants I’m going to feed to the critters, I just whack the whole thing off about three to six inches above the ground. Chard does just fine with cut-and-come-again harvesting. If you get behind in the harvesting, it will continue to grow huge leaves that you can wash, slice finely and freeze for winter minestrone. And you can keep on harvesting for months – literally – in my garden I can harvest chard from May to at least November.

Summer chard, with parsley in the foreground.

I grow a lot more chard than we actually need or can eat because it’s a great source of greens for pigs and chickens. I give it about 12 square inches per plant. If your soil is really fertile, you can give it 8 to 10 inches. I like the extra space because I’m less likely to knock off stalks in the harvesting process and it’s easier to weed. At 12-inch spacing, I can get 16 chard plants in four square feet. Since one chard plant will give you about 2 pounds of food, that’s 32 pounds of leaves and stalks.

Like some leafy greens, chard is quick-cooking. The stalks are best sauteed or baked (add onions and garlic), while the leaves can be chopped or shredded and cooked like spinach. Swiss chard takes well to a gratin of Parmesan, Jack and/or mozzarella cheese. It can be layered with home-made ricotta filling (just use your favorite lasagna filling recipe) and baked. It’s the quintessential green for minestrone. Chard leaves make good wrappers for fillings like sausage, rice, chopped veggies, cooked chickpeas and combinations thereof. It’s a classic paired with cannellini beans, olive oil and garlic. For extra flavor, I cook the beans in chicken broth rather than plain water.

Minestrone

  • 2 tablespoons coconut oil
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 2 large or 3 medium leeks, white and light green parts only, cleaned and sliced
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • Salt (skip if using a ham bone)
  • 1/2 small head green or savoy cabbage, shredded (about 4 cups)
  • 6 large cloves garlic, minced or pressed
  • 2 quarts water or chicken broth (or cook a ham bone/smoked ham hocks in two quarts water the night before; let cool, then taste to make sure the broth isn’t too salty. If it is, cut with some more water. Dice the meat and add it with the pasta)
  • 2 boiling potatoes, diced
  • 1 (14-ounce) can tomatoes, with liquid, seeded and chopped
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano or 1/2 teaspoon dried
  • 1 (2 1/2 x 1 1/2-inch) piece Parmesan rind
  • 1/2 bay leaf
  • Few sprigs each thyme and parsley
  • 2 cups cooked cannellini or Great Northern beans (cook your own, don’t use the canned stuff)
  • 1/4 pound Swiss chard, stemmed, washed well and chopped (about 2 cups)
  • 1/2 cup pasta, such as elbow macaroni, small shells or broken spaghetti
  • 1/2 pound green beans, cut into 1-inch lengths
  • 1 pound fresh shelled beans
  • 1 cup fresh peas or thawed frozen peas
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan

Heat the oil over medium-low heat in a large, heavy soup pot or Dutch oven and add the onions. Cook, stirring, until they begin to soften. Add the leeks. Cook, stirring, until the vegetables are tender and translucent but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add the carrots and celery and a generous pinch of salt, and continue to cook, stirring often, until the vegetables are tender and fragrant, 5 to 10 minutes. Stir in the cabbage and the garlic, add a little more salt, and cook until the cabbage has wilted, about 5 minutes. Add the water, potatoes, canned tomatoes with liquid and oregano. Bring to a boil. Tie the Parmesan rind, bay leaf, thyme and parsley sprigs together with kitchen string, or tie in cheesecloth, and add to the pot. Add salt to taste (at least 2 teaspoons), reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer 45 minutes. Stir the cooked beans into the soup, then add the greens and the pasta. Five minutes later, add the peas, shell beans and green beans. Simmer until the pasta is cooked al dente, about five minutes more. Remove the Parmesan rind bundle, stir in the chopped parsley and remove from the heat. Serve in wide soup bowls, with a tablespoon of Parmesan sprinkled over the top.

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