Hard to Beta vulgaris, so chew on chard

Sr Paula Buckley, with a bed of chard growing on the organic farm at the Nano Nagle Centre, Ballygriffin, Mallow, Co Cork.

Chard or Beta vulgaris, is closely related to beetroot, but unlike it’s rooty cousin, it is grown and cooked for it’s leaf and stem.

Also known as Swiss Chard, Silverbeet, Perpetual Spinach, Spinach Beet and Leaf Beet, this leafy green vigorous grower could be accused of having a bit of an identity crisis. However in the garden, its shiny dark green ribbed leaves and striking stems are unambiguous.

Depending on the cultivar, stems range in colour from white to yellow to orange and from red to bright pink. Chard not only illuminates a garden but can also work magic to brighten up your complexion and your plate. It’s ‘cut and come again’ leaves and vibrant coloured stalks will grow under most conditions, are versatile in the kitchen, and provide the body with more vitamins and minerals than almost any other green.

Swiss chard could be classed as a super food as it boasts impressive concentrations of vitamin K, vitamin A, vitamin C, magnesium, manganese, potassium, iron, vitamin E, and dietary fibre. It is also a good source of copper, calcium, vitamin B2, vitamin B6, protein, phosphorus, vitamin B1, zinc, folate, biotin, niacin and pantothenic acid. If that isn’t enough, it is high in anti-oxidants and thus proclaimed to possess cancer-fighting properties. On the flip side, it contains a certain amount of oxalic acid, which is reputed to inhibit the absorption of iron and calcium. However, oxalic acid is found in many foods and is a controversial subject among nutritionists and health experts. In short, unless you have been specifically advised to, avoid oxalates, the ‘everything in moderation’ precept should serve you well.

Chard is nearly like two vegetables in one. The sturdy stems need time to get tender, while the green leafy part cooks almost instantly. My general rule of thumb when cooking it is to treat the leaves as you would spinach and the stems as you would asparagus. The stems vary in texture with the white ones being the most tender. Fresh young chard leaves can be juiced or used raw in salads. Mature chard leaves and stalks have a slightly bitter taste but their bitterness fades with cooking, leaving a refined flavour which in my opinion can even be more delicate than that of cooked spinach.

Chard has a slightly meatier texture and earthier flavour than spinach, but its leaves can be cooked in much the same way. In addition to serving on its own as a side dish, Swiss chard can be incorporated into soups, stuffing, stir fries, pasta dishes, pies etc. You could try wrapping chard leaves around your favourite filling and then bake in a medium-heat oven and enjoy much like stuffed cabbage.

Swiss chard and cottage cheese lasagne is a delectable lighter variation on this sometimes stodgy Italian dish. Chard boiled in salted water, seasoned and tossed in olive oil or butter makes a simple but yummy treat. The possibilities are as perpetual as the plant itself and if you have copious amounts of chard, you can blanch the leaves and then freeze them for later use.

Swiss chard is available all year round. Use crisp, brightly coloured leaves and stems. Remember that chard shrinks during cooking, so often what looks like a mountain, will reduce to a molehill. Chop the stem into whatever sized pieces you desire. The leaves can be chopped, torn or cooked whole but it’s best advised to boil chard, instead of steaming, before adding to recipes, as this is said to free some of the oxalic acids, making the chard less bitter.

QUICK AND TASTY SWISS CHARD SIDE DISH

Ingredients:

1 lb swiss chard (1 bunch)

2 tbsp olive oil

1 tbsp heavy cream

¼ cup finely grated parmesan

Salt and pepper

Method:

Preheat the oven to 200°C. Wash chard.

Pull the stems out of each leaf and cut stems into half inch chunks.

Dry the leaves on paper towels or spin in a salad spinner.

Put the stems in a two-inch deep baking dish that is large enough to accommodate all the chard leaves later. Drizzle with 1 tbsp olive oil.

Add a pinch of salt and pepper and mix well.

Roast in the middle of the oven until the stems are tender and golden brown, about 20 minutes.

Pile the leaves on top of the stems.

Drizzle with remaining 1 tbsp of olive oil. Toss with thongs and return to the oven.

Roast until the greens wilt, which should take about five minutes.

Stir in the cream, taste and add more salt and pepper if needed.

Sprinkle with grated parmesan and return to the oven until cream is bubbly and parmesan is melted.

Serve this dish as a side vegetable with any meal and you are sure to impress and get tongues talking about the tasty, nutritious, all year round delicacy, that is Swiss chard.


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