Kim O'Donnel is a freelance food writer and the author of the Meat Lovers' Meatless Cookbook and Meat Lovers' Meatless Celebrations.
Thanks in large part to a certain scrappy cartoon sailor, we are well familiar with the leafy green known as spinach and its magical nutritional powers. But chard, its cousin in the Goosefoot (or Chenopodiaceae) family? Not so much.
Also known as leaf beet, silverbeet, white beet and spinach beet (you guessed it -- beet is part of the family, too), chard is better known on the other side of the Atlantic than it is on American shores. Even with increasing appearances at farmers' markets and in CSA shares and produce aisles, chard remains relatively unsung, the brainy beautiful girl at the school dance without a date.
At first glance, chard is a real looker, its leaves ruffled like a petticoat dress, accented with multi-colored veins that run through them like embroidery. Her stems come in a variety of shades that are the stuff of designer dreams -- creamy white, blood red, groovy magenta and mellow yellow.
But Americans, who are still hooked on spinach (particularly of the pre-rinsed tender-leaved variety), are baffled by this beauty -- what on earth does one do with it?
The public relations problem may also be one of confusion: Maybe you've heard it referred to as "Swiss chard" or "rainbow chard" and didn't know the difference -- or is there one?
Let's start over. First, let go of the word "Swiss" and just call her "chard." In his Mediterranean Vegetables, culinary scholar Clifford A. Wright reminds us that a Jerusalem artichoke isn't from Israel, just like Swiss chard ain't from Switzerland.
Other than its more textured (read: stringy and often tough) stems, chard cooks very much like spinach and can be used interchangeably in most cooked dishes calling for Popeye's fave. Nutritionally, it runs a close second (we'll get to that a bit later) and over the past ten years has steered clear of spinach's food safety woes. (Back in 2006, I suggested chard as the unquestionable alternative during an E.coli scare.)
Vote for chard. You'll be glad you did.
A Brief History
We've established that despite the common "Swiss" reference, chard is not Swiss in origin. In fact, it is a native of the Mediterranean, deemed the "queen of vegetables in Nice" by Clifford Wright.
It is believed that the name "chard" is derived from the French word for "cardoon," which is carde, which furthers the confusion because a cardoon is a thistle and hardly a leafy green.
It's unclear just how old chard is, but several sources mention Aristotle giving a shout-out to red-stalked chard around 350 B.C., and that both his Greek colleagues and Roman counterparts revered it for its medicinal prowess.
Botanically it's known as Beta vulgaris, Cicla group (a reference to the ancient word for Sicily), one more association with the word "beet." As previously mentioned, chard is part of the goosefoot family, which includes -- get this -- quinoa.
Chard is a cool weather crop with a relatively high tolerance for cold and low tolerance for heat. Depending on where you live, you may see chard abundance in spring, early summer and then again in the fall, even after the first frost.
Unlike spinach, which is grown on an industrial scale and has been plagued by ongoing food safety scares in recent years, chard remains a decidedly non-commodity crop favored by small farms and avid gardeners. So far, it remains free of the trappings of industrial agriculture, which means local options are abundant, either through farmers' markets, CSA shares or at natural foods markets.
Conventionally grown spinach is ranked number 8 on the "Dirty Dozen" list compiled by the Environmental Working Group, but chard has nary a mention in the EWG's 2012 Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce. (See our vegetable rule of thumb.*) Still, I recommend asking the grower about his or her production methods.
Antioxidants, phytonutrients, vitamins, iron, fiber, folate, protein, magnesium. What doesn't chard have going for it? It even contains tryptophan, the amino acid known as a natural relaxant and sleep aid that most people associate with Thanksgiving turkey.
One cup of cooked chard has more than 3 grams of protein and half our daily needs for Vitamin C, for only 35 calories. Those rainbow-colored stems and veins are the source of amazing phytonutrients that are being studied for anti-inflammatory, detoxifying and disease-fighting benefits.
The caveat: Like spinach, chard has considerable amounts of oxalic acid, which can be minimized by cooking. Avoid if you are being treated for kidney or gall bladder conditions, and as always, check with your medical provider.
What To Look For and What to Do With It
You want crisp, perky and glossy leaves, nothing wilted, dull or sad. Even if you don't use the stems, they should be firm and look healthy.
Often sandy and in need a good rinse, resist the temptation and don't wash chard until ready to use. Keep it dry in a kitchen towel and out of the plastic bag, as moisture makes for slimy leaves. Use within three days. Chard does not like to sit around and wait to be used.
There are two camps of chard eaters -- those who relish the stems and those who don't understand the hype. I am among the stem-disenchanted. In my experience, the tough stems are too darn stringy, even if they're coaxed into submission in broth or after being braised. If you don't want to waste the stems, cook them separately from the leaves, as they take longer to cook.
Whatever you decide, you'll need to remove the stems that travel all the way to the top of the leaf. Using your hands or a paring knife, pull the leaf away from where it meets the stem on both sides, then rinse thoroughly.
If you've never had the pleasure, chard has a more complex flavor profile than spinach, in my opinion. It's earthier (probably because of its beet lineage) and sweeter, and despite the presence of oxalates, it doesn't create that filmy feeling on your teeth that is characteristic of spinach, unless you eat it raw.
I've got a thing for pairing chard with legumes (particularly lentils) or grains. It works great in pilafs, mixed into soups and stews (anything brothy loves the addition of chard), as part of a frittata or with pasta, from short penne to lasagna and ravioli. It can be steamed, roasted, stuffed, braised and gratineed.
Below is one of my favorite ways to feature chard. I know friends who've put this on their Thanksgiving table in lieu of the bird. If you're pressed for time, omit the gravy. It will still be luscious.
Shepherd's Pie With Chard-Lentil Filling
from "The Meat Lover's Meatless Cookbook" by Kim O'Donnel
Makes about 6 servings
Kitchen notes: Although this is a four-pot affair, it need not feel like a three-ring circus. First item of business: Get the lentils on the stove. While they're simmering, work on the onion gravy. While the gravy simmers, boil the potatoes for the mashed topping. Everything comes together in a pie plate.
1 cup wine-braised lentils (details follow)
11⁄2 cups onion gravy (details follow)
2 pounds medium-size potatoes
(4 to 5 potatoes; my favorites are Yukon Gold or Yellow Finn), washed, trimmed/peeled as needed, and cut into quarters
2 teaspoons salt
3 cloves garlic, peeled but left whole
5 tablespoons olive oil
Ground black pepper
3 to 4 cups chard (from 1 bunch), washed, stemmed, and chopped finely into "ribbons"
1 clove garlic, chopped roughly
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1⁄4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Grease a 9-inch pie plate.
Fill a medium-size saucepan with 4 cups of water, and add the potatoes and salt. The water should just barely cover the potatoes.
Cover and bring to a boil. Add the whole garlic. Return the lid and cook until fork tender, about 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
With a slotted spoon or skimmer, transfer the potatoes and garlic to a large mixing bowl and mash with a hand masher. Stir in the reserved cooking liquid as necessary to moisten the potatoes. Add 3 tablespoons of the olive oil and stir in vigorously with a wooden spoon. Taste for salt, pepper, and texture and season and stir accordingly; mashed potatoes should be smooth and well seasoned.
In a large skillet, heat the remaining olive oil over medium heat and cook the chard with the chopped garlic, until wilted, 3 to 5 minutes, regularly tossing with tongs to cook evenly. Stir in the nutmeg and season with more salt to taste, if needed. Transfer to a medium-size bowl.
Portion out 1 cup of the lentils (the rest is cook's treat) and stir into the chard until well combined.
Assemble the pie: Transfer the chard mixture to the greased pie plate. Top with the mashed potatoes, and with a rubber spatula, smooth the mash so that it's evenly distributed and completely covers the surface. Top off with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Place the dish in the oven and heat through, 20 to 25 minutes. During the final 2 minutes of cooking, set the oven to the broil setting to brown the cheesy-mashed top.
Remove from the oven, slice into wedges, and eat hot with a ladleful of onion gravy.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1⁄2 cup onion, diced
1⁄4 cup carrot, peeled and diced
1 sprig fresh thyme, or
1⁄2 teaspoon dried
1⁄2 cup dried brown or green lentils, rinsed (the smaller French lentilles du Puy, with a more refined texture, are my preference, but they're not always available. Use what you can find in your local market.)
2 tablespoons red wine you enjoy drinking
3⁄4 to 1 cup water
1⁄4 to 1⁄2 teaspoon salt
In a small saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat and add the onion, carrot and thyme. Cook for about 5 minutes, until slightly softened.
Add the lentils and stir to coat. Add the red wine (if using) and bring to a lively simmer. The wine will reduce a bit.
Add 3⁄4 cup of the water, return to a lively simmer, then lower the heat, cover and cook until fork tender, 35 to 40 minutes.
Check and add a little extra water if need be, to keep the lentils from drying out completely. Stir in 1⁄4 teaspoon of the salt, taste, and add the remaining salt, if needed.
Makes 11⁄2 cups. If you love these lentils, amounts may be doubled for a big pot that will keep for days and pair up seamlessly with your favorite grain.
3 tablespoons butter
2 cups onions, sliced thinly into half-moons
1 or 2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 cups water
1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
Pinch of sugar
1 teaspoon soy sauce
In a deep skillet, melt the butter over medium heat and add the onions and thyme. With tongs, toss to coat the onions with the butter and cook over medium-low heat, until softened, reduced and jam-like, about 25 minutes.
Add the balsamic vinegar, stir and cook for an additional 5 minutes.
Add the water and bring to a lively simmer. Reduce by half, about 15 minutes. Stir in the cornstarch mixture and cook for an additional 5 minutes; the gravy will continue to reduce. Stir in the salt and sugar, and taste. Finish off with the soy sauce.
Turn off the heat, cover and gently reheat at a simmer, just before serving with pie.
(*Vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them -- agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry's tendency toward large monocrops.)
This post was originally published in October 2012.