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Swiss Chard: The Queen of Greens

Magenta Swiss chard in October

(Originally published May 18, 2013)

You may have already noticed that I’m kind of fixated on greens. Part of that is the time of the year—leafy greens just rule in spring. They love cooler temperatures and grow quickly, so they’re abundant in farmers’ markets in spring, fall, even in winter if you’re lucky enough to have a winter market in your town, or if you, like me, do your own winter gardening with the aid of some kind of tunnel protection. Every type of leafy green thrives when the days are cool and sunny, and right about now the weather is perfect for every type of salad and cooking green.

But while some leafy greens, like spinach, mustards, and many varieties of lettuce, will wilt, bolt, and become bitter in the steamy heat of July and August in Missouri, other greens can withstand the high temps and even thrive. One famously heat-tolerant leafy veg is that Southern staple, collard greens. My patch of collards withstood a record heat wave and drought last summer and continued to live happily through the entire winter under a low plastic tunnel.

Another heat-tolerant star and one of my very favorite greens for cooking is the queen of greens and the focus of this post, Swiss chard. As a beginning gardener I grew Swiss chard because it was so easy—throw the big seeds in the ground, give them some water and sunshine, and you’re always rewarded with rows of huge, dazzling sails of deep green chard waving above a rainbow of thick stalks in magenta, orange, yellow and bright white. They’re almost too pretty to pick. Once I did harvest a batch–cutting the stalks off close to the ground, leaving the base of the plant intact—each plant seemed to regenerate overnight, sending up another set of lovely stalks and leaves, and this cycle continued all through the summer (though temps in the high 80s and above slowed growth and made the plants look near death at times.) When the weather finally cooled down in the fall the chard bed sprang back to vigorous life, as if I’d given it a dose of steroids instead of a drink of fish emulsion, and the cycle only ended with the first really hard freeze of winter.

But it took me a while to figure out the best ways to prepare my chard since back then, in 1990, I didn’t know many people who actually ate Swiss chard, or who had even heard of it. (At least not here in central Missouri, unless they had an Italian grandma.) It was confusing at first–is it like spinach, with the tender leaves? What do I do with those thick, fleshy stems, that look kind of like rhubarb? I found that the flavor was definitely more distinctive than that of spinach, though the leaves were just as tender; in fact, chard could at times have an almost astringent, slightly bitter taste that puzzled me at first. I knew it was very nutritious (very high in vitamins A, C, and K, and also high in manganese, magnesium, iron, and vitamin E, not to mention its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory properties) and that I could grow it effortlessly even as a gardening newbie, but I wasn’t yet sold on it. My relationship with Swiss chard was much like my daughter’s relationship with reading: an unenthusiastic reader until age 9, the Harry Potter series ignited an all-consuming passion that led to a life-long love of literature. Like her, once fully immersed in the culture of greens, I couldn’t get enough of them.  

By the end of that first season I realized that Swiss chard is one of the vegetables I will always grow in my garden, even if I move to a condo in the city and only have a single windowbox in a sunny window. (I admit, the odds of that happening are not great!) If I don’t grow it myself, I’ll track it down in one of the farmers’ markets surrounding me in Callaway, Cole, and Boone county. It’s endlessly versatile, and makes everything you add it to taste better. It loves being paired with cheese—pile it on a pizza, layer it into lasagna or penne with pine nuts, tuck it into a quiche, or  mix it up with some parmesan and butter. And the lactose-intolerant can still enjoy it simmered in soup, sauteed with garlic and olive oil, tossed in a stir fry, or nestled in a salad as wee baby leaves. It’s particularly wonderful paired with just about anything that involves garlic and olive oil. 

Now it’s as widely available in grocery stores as it is in your farmers’ market—though the chard you buy at the farmers’ market will be much fresh and tastier, of course!–and there are countless recipes available online and in print. I believe I’ve tried at least one hundred of them, but here are just a few of my tried-and-true, go-to recipes.

Here are a few recipes to use with chard (or other greens), with more to be added soon:

White Pizza with Seasonal Greens: http://www.modeeproots.com/recipeswhite-pizza-with-sausage-and-seasonal-greens

Chard Baked with Parmesan Cheese: http://www.modeeproots.com/chard-baked-with-parmesan-cheese

Chicken, Rice and Greens Soup (a.k.a. The World’s Simplest Soup): http://www.modeeproots.com/chicken-rice-and-greens-soup-a-k-a-the-worlds-simplest-soup

Sauteed Greens Two Ways: http://www.modeeproots.com/sauteed-greens

Essence of Spring Salad: http://www.modeeproots.com/essence-of-spring-green-salad

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