In an Italian supermarket recently I asked for spinach and was told the season was over but why didn’t I try ‘this’ pointing to little bunches of green leaves – ‘it’s similar’ I was assured.
On returning home and consulting my dictionary I discovered that ‘this’ was chard – I hadn’t recognised it as I’m used to the gloriously colourful red and golden rainbow type.
I thought this was very good – a little nutty, earthier than spinach, and it was super-quick to cook, almost instant!
There are three types of Swiss chard (Beta Vulgaris subsp. cicla var. flavescens):
- rainbow chard – see the photograph above – a mix of different types of coloured chard
- ruby, red or rhubarb chard – with red stems
- white-stemmed chard
There is also another type of chard (not the ‘Swiss’ type) known as perpetual spinach, which has slightly thinner stems, and, not surprisingly, is even more like spinach.
In spite of its name, however, Swiss chard does not come from Switzerland, but from Sicily (which explains perhaps why I find the white-stemmed type all over Sardinia). It’s described, in English at least (in Italian its name is ‘bietole’), as ‘Swiss’ because it was the botanist Karl Koch who first distinguished between chard and French spinach. Just to further confuse matters, Koch was in fact German rather than Swiss…
The good news is that not only is chard quick to cook and good to taste, it is also one of the most health-giving vegetables of all. It has over 700 times the recommended daily requirement of vitamin K (helping the bones to build up calcium and blood to coagulate), and 200 times the daily recommended intake of vitamin A (good for your eyesight and immune system).
The bad news is that it doesn’t keep long (about three days in the fridge in a perforated plastic bag), and it tends to wilt if you wash it before cooking.
And it will also turn an unappetising murky colour if you cook it in an aluminium pan due to the oxalates (naturally existing compounds) it contains.
It’s in season June to August and October to April.
Six ways to cook chard:
1. chinese-influenced method:
It’s best to separate the leaves from the stems. Then you can boil or stir fry (in olive oil or sesame oil and garlic, and maybe some sesame seeds and fermented soy sauce) the leaves for a couple of minutes maximum. The stems needs about a minute longer.
2. traditional method:
If the chard is small (like the short white-stemmed chard in the photograph to the side) you can simply:
- shred the chard
- heat some butter and olive oil in a frying pan
- add the chard for about a minute and a half (you can also add a tablespoon of dry vermouth if you like)
- sprinkle with smoked salt and paprika
3. gratin method (specially good with ham and a baked potato):
- preheat your oven to about 210ºC – use the roasting oven of an aga
- take a 300g/11 oz bag of prepared swiss chard – or a couple of generous bunches, prepared as above and put into an oven-proof dish
- mix together 120ml/½ cup/about ¼ pint of double cream with 115g/1 cup grated cheddar or Gruyère and 1 tbsp mustard (ideally grainy) – pour over the chard
- grate over a couple of tablespoons of parmesan
- bake for up to half an hour
4. as a wrap:
For a very original lunch or picnic idea for using the large-leaved colourful chard (see featured image) go to Stephanie Eusabi’s excellent blog where she gives an idea for a swiss chard wrap, with chicken, avocado and tomatoes.
5. with pine nuts, raisins and cinnamon:
Fry a shallot until just transparent, and then add chard, pine nuts (or pumpkin seeds), some raisins soaked in tea and a sprinkling of cinnamon. Particularly good as an accompaniment to French boeuf bourgignon and English dumplings.
6. with artichokes and broad beans
Follow this link for the recipe
Two other things to do with chard:
- chard is very good with celery – chop up a couple of sticks of celery and fry as above before adding the chard.
- you can add young chard leaves, uncooked, into a salad.