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Chard

Known by a host of other names such as rainbow chard, swiss chard or rhubarb chard, this hardy green leafy vegetable has fallen out of favour… which is a crying shame!


An image of picked Swiss chard on an oak block chopping board
Swiss Chard

In my all too brief foray into the wonderful world of allotments, chard was perhaps my first and greatest success. An incredibly versatile vegetable with a broad window for sewing and harvesting. I remember the seed packets recommending a June – October window for sewing and a 12 week wait for harvest. I found that as long as there was some heat left in the soil the seeds pretty much grew! It was great, there was always something to harvest on the allotment and in the early days this was a much needed boost! Not only was it easy to grow but there is a perpetual nature to chard. Cutting the mature leaves rather than pulling the plant meant it just kept producing and growing! One row on the allotment would provide a whole seasons eating and the season was pretty vague too making this vegetable available throughout most of the spring and autumn months, surpassing spinach and kale for longevity.


Chard has not always had the best reputation, at times being boiled to death in a creamy sea, found on many Italian or Swiss/French restaurant menus throughout the 1908’s. When handled thoughtfully its charm and versatility shine!

Picked Swiss chard on an oak chopping board

The stem and leaf stalks have a slightly stringy texture akin to celery and a mild bitterness that masks a delicate floral vegetal tone. The leaves have a delightful earthy sweetness similar to spinach with a more robust texture getting close to that of kale.


Here in lies chard beauty giving it true culinary breadth. The stem is tender enough to be lightly cooked while the leaves are robust enough to stand up to a wider variety of cooking techniques. Younger leaves, generally less than 15cm, favour fast light cooking, while the more mature leaves hold up to more intense methods.


The stem colour varies from white through to vibrant pinks, oranges and even red, colours that remain through cooking, drawing your eye in to the finished dish with flamboyant charm.


Chard’s character flows from it’s heritage as a member of the beetroot family. Originally cultivated from sea beet, provides the robust nature and distinctive flavour of chard as well as its multitude of colour. Chard’s versatility emanates from its preferred environment. Sewn while heat remains in the sun and daylight hours have yet to fade bring sweetness and softness reminiscent of low autumn light and gently warming spring days. Much of it’s growing is done with at a time of year when there is a healthy rainfall coupled with dipping night time temperatures providing Chard with a robust leafy nature. A vegetable that bridges the seasons beautifully.


Chard leaf and stem separated

Getting the best out of chard is straightforward with all of this in mind. Younger leaves can be simply shredded and briefly wilted, sauté or stir fried taking only a couple of minutes to cook. Make sure to keep a crunch in the stem to retain a delicate flavour.


When choosing or buying chard, look for healthy plants. Seek out vibrant green leaves and firm stems with no discolouration. There should be an all over fresh appeal and avoid limp blemished bunches choked into tight bunches. Chard is a hardy vegetable with a short shelf life so store sensitively in the refrigerator for 2 / 3 days. Wash before using rather than prior to storing as this will keep the stems healthier and slow their degrading.


Larger mature chard benefits from thinking about it in two parts, the stem and the leaf. Stems take slightly longer to cook than the leaves and the texture can become sludgy if overcooked. Slice the leaf from the stem for fast high temperature cooking, adding the stem first and the leaves closer to the end of cooking.


Chard’s heritage being rooted in beetroot brings great variety when considering flavour combinations and pairings. Rich creamy cheesy recipes balance the bitterness and complement the texture. In this same vein meats and legumes partner well with chard. Other leafy greens and root vegetables share a plate very well with chard also. Garlic and floral herbs such as thyme, lemon thyme, oregano and tarragon highlight the lighter flavour to chard nicely!


Rainbow chard chopped with picked lemon thyme, sliced garlic and shaved nutmeg.
Bright Lights

When it comes to seasoning, chard has an accepting nature being able to take on spices that may overpower other leafy greens.


Spices with an acidic edge or heat to them complement the earthy sweetness. Try chilies, fresh or dried, all varieties of peppercorn, allspice and mustard.


Spices with woody floral tones complement the earthy element to chard. Nutmeg, caraway and cumin do this well.


To bring out the floral vegetal nature of chard is hard because it mild in intensity and masked by the bittersweet element. Spices that have a floral nature when used sparingly help to highlight this edge that chard has. A touch of cardamom, fennel seeds or juniper will be delightful.


There are a whole host of recipes out there ranging from main dishes right the way to. delightful side dishes to complement any meal. Some of my favourites are using the whole leaves in a gratin, adding picked leaves and sliced stems to a minestra soup, baking in a galette, a simple side sauté with garlic and even a humus style dip. Chard’s culinary breadth holds my love for this vegetable so experiment where ever possible.


 

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