From JEFF COX
Organic Food Guy
Kenwood, Sonoma County
Botanically chard is a subspecies of ordinary garden beets, bred for its leaves rather than its root, and packs the same kind of nutritional punch. The name “chard” comes from the French chardon, or thistle, although chard is not a thistle (the name came about cecause chard has a wide midrib similar to the cardoon, which is a thistle, and because of this physical resemblance the French word for thistle came to be applied to chard as well).
For some reason, chard also goes by the name of Swiss chard. While the vegetable is commonly grown in Switzerland, among other northern European countries, it’s the French and Italians, not the Swiss, who have done the most with chard, with the Spanish and Greeks running a close second. In southern Spain and out on the Balearic Islands, it’s cooked much as the Arabs of North Africa use it, with spices and hot chiles, or cooked with sweetmeats. In fact, chard’s history is long, going back before Rome (its subspecies name, cicla, refers to sicula, the ancient name of Sicily), before Greece, back to ancient Babylon. Various theories have been proposed for why the country of Switzerland has been associated with chard, but none of them seem worth repeating. I just call the vegetable chard and leave it at that.
The Organic Factor
Make sure your chard is organic. The high-nitrogen chemical fertilizers used in conventional agriculture can cause the plants to take up too much nitrate, which can change within the human digestive system to cancer-causing nitrites. Organic soils feed chard their nitrogen from natural sources, at just the rate the plants need it.
Just ½ cup of cooked chard provides 30 to 40 percent of the daily requirement of vitamin A, 20 percent of vitamin C, 20 percent of magnesium, 13 percent of potassium, 5 percent of calcium, and 25 percent iron for males and 11 percent for females. While you sometimes see chard recommended as a salad ingredient, use it sparingly because raw chard contains oxalic acid, enough of which can cause gastrointestinal upsets and block the body’s ability to absorb iron and calcium. Cooking disarms the oxalic acid.
When grown in cold winter climates, chard is ready to harvest in late spring or early summer and will continue to produce stalks until hard frosts in November. In warm winter areas, winter is its preferred season with best growth and largest yields.
What to look for
Look for stems that are crisp, not limp, and inspect the cut ends; they should look freshly cut, not dried or shriveled. The leaves should be fresh and glossy. Reject any bunches with leaves that have begun to decay.
While it’s certainly possible to cook chard leaves and stems together, the leaves will be done long before the stems finish cooking, so it makes more sense to cook the two separately (the exception is if they’re going into a soup, stew, or braising pan that will cook for a long time). To separate leaves from the stems, lay a leaf on a cutting board and cut along either side of the rib.
To prepare chard stems for cooking, check the fibers that run up the back of the stems. If the stems are wide and older, their fibers may be unpleasantly chewy: Use a paring knife to peel the fibers from the stem, as you would with celery. Fresh young chard stems — even big ones — may not need to be de-strung. Give them a tooth test to see how chewy they are.
Chard is as versatile in cooking as just about any vegetable. The leaves have a delicious earthy tang and the stems are succulent, bitter-sweet, and have a hint of salsify and cardoon in their flavor. The leaves and stems are functionally two kinds of vegetables from the same plant.
Chard leaves can be steamed and served like spinach, made into a quiche, or used like spinach. The substantial leaves also make excellent wrappers, dolma-style, for ground meats, grains, or nuts to be baked en casserole.
Chard stems take a little more work, but they’re worth it. The white midribs of Lucullus and Argentata varieties are my favorites.
The prepared stems can be braised, or parboiled and then finished in any number of ways, such as simmering in stock or deep frying. To parboil, cut the stems into two- to three-inch pieces and boil in lightly salted water acidulated with a tablespoon of lemon juice for about five to seven minutes. Then rinse them in cold water.
After parboiling, simmer the pieces in stock with a splash of lemon juice until they are tender. They can be served as is or gratinéed. My favorite way to prepare the parboiled stems is to squeeze them dry between paper towels, dip them in batter made of 2 eggs mixed with 3 tablespoons of milk, dredge them with spicy bread crumbs, and fry them in a skillet in olive oil (turn so that both sides become crunchy and golden).
If you like to garden
In addition to being a versatile vegetable in cooking, chard is one of the more ornamental plants that you can grow in a vegetable garden; tuck a few plants into your flower garden. The variety called Bright Lights, for instance, produces stems in yellow, gold, pink, orange, crimson, lavender, and purple — and shades in between. If you let it go to seed, it will come back for you again and again. Years ago someone in the San Francisco area let plants of an heirloom Italian variety of chard go to seed, and it has been volunteering around the margins of the bay ever since. I planted chard in my garden in Sonoma County the first year I moved here, and as long as I let a plant go to seed, it comes back regularly and grows all year round.
Organic Tacos of Creamy Braised Chard Recipe
Makes 16 to 18 tacos
Rick Bayliss, the renowned chef and owner of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago, gave me this recipe, writing, “There’s something about this creamy combination of greens and green chiles that I want to taste time and again.”
· 4 medium–large fresh organic poblano chiles (about 3 ounces each)
· 1 tablespoon olive oil
· 1 medium organic white onion, sliced ¼ inch thick
· 2 cloves organic garlic, chopped fine
· ¼ teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican
· ¼ teaspoon dried thyme
· 16 to 18 corn tortillas (plus a few extra, in case some break)
· ¾ cup organic chicken stock
· 3 medium organic red potatoes (about 10 ounces), cut into ½-inch cubes
· 1 (12-ounce) bunch chard, leaves only, sliced ½ inch thick (6 cups, loosely packed)
· ¾ cup heavy organic cream or crème fraîche
· ½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
· ¾ cup crumbled Mexican queso fresco or pressed, salted farmer’s cheese
1. Roast the chiles directly over a gas flame or 4 inches below a very hot broiler until blackened on all sides, about 5 minutes for open flame or 10 minutes for broiler. Remove from the heat, cover with a kitchen towel and let stand 5 minutes. Peel, pull out the stem and seed pod, then rinse briefly. Slice into ¼-inch strips and reserve.
2. In a 10- to 12-inch skillet, heat the oil over medium heat, then add the onion, stirring often until nicely browned but still a little crunch, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, oregano, and thyme, toss a minute longer, stir in the chile strips, and remove from heat.
3. To warm the tortillas, set up two vegetable steamers with ½ inch of water under the steamer basket; bring to a boil. Make two stacks of the tortillas and wrap them in heavy kitchen towels, lay them in the steamers and cover tightly. Heat for 1 minute, then turn off the heat and let stand without opening for 15 minutes.
4. While the tortillas are steaming, prepare the filling. In a small saucepan, combine the chicken stock and potatoes, cover, bring to a simmer and cook over medium-low heat until nearly tender, about 15 minutes. Pour the potatoes and stock into the pan with the chiles, mix in the chard, bring to a boil over medium-high heat and cook until the stock has evaporated, about 4 minutes. Mix in the cream and continue to boil, stirring regularly, until the cream is reduced enough to coat the mixture nicely. Taste and season with salt.
5. Scoop the mixture into a deep, warm serving dish, sprinkle with the cheese and serve immediately with the warm tortillas. Your guests can assemble the tacos for themselves at the table.