It was love at first sight.
I’m talking about red-stemmed Swiss chard, surely among the most attractive of leafy edibles, with its ruby stems and veins coursing through a nutritious, deep green landscape.
Red, gold and purple stemmed chards are newer cultivars of the older green-stemmed variety. And from what I’ve read in various sources, there is nothing Swiss about it. Chard originated in the Mediterranean, where the French now call it blette and the Italians bietole. It was a Swiss botanist (Koch) who gave chard its scientific name. Seed catalogs in the 19th Century added the Swiss name to distinguish chard seeds from those of the cardoon because evidently the French were calling both plants carde due to their similar thick stems. (One source of the saga is here.)
When cooked, chard melts into a grayish green shade, retaining little of its former glory. It also bears flavor that may put off some eaters at first. Chard tastes earthy like its cousin the beet. Perfect for a gratin.
Add a little bechamél, blanket with buttery breadcrumbs, and any vegetable becomes glamorous. The assorted leftovers nestled in the back of the refrigerator or the tired looking carrots in the bottom bin would appreciate your attention.
I made a half-recipe this week and we polished it off for dinner. The daily high temperatures had dropped all the way to low 80s, and I think that touch of fall in the air that got me thinking of cheese and bread crumbs.
Here’s something else you can do if you find yourself with a bounty of chard. Use the stems only and make a gratin. Save the tender, leafy parts and head toward dessert. Chard, you see, takes kindly to a bit of sweetness. In Tuscany and in the south of France, you’ll find chard, pine nuts and raisins bound with eggs and sugar, baked in a pie crust and called dessert.
Chard Gratin with Parmesan Bechamél and Bread Crumbs
adapted from Local Flavors by Deborah Madison
4 T unsalted butter
1 onion, finely chopped
salt and pepper
1 c fresh whole wheat bread crumbs
1 large garlic clove, minced
3 T chopped parsley
1 T flour
1 c milk or cream
1/4 t freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
1/2 c shredded Parmesan cheese
Separate the leaves from the stems. Coarsely chop the leaves and set aside. Dice the stems into small pieces.
Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a wide skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and chard stems and cook until the onion has begun to brown, about 20 minutes. Add the chard leaves. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt. Cook gently until leaves are wilted, about 10 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and lightly oil a 2 qt baking dish. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a small skillet and add the bread crumbs, garlic and parsley. Cook for about one minute, then remove the crumbs into a bowl.
Melt the last tablespoon of butter and stir in the flour. Whisk in the milk. Simmer for about 5 minutes, adding 1/2 teaspoon of salt, pepper to taste, and the nutmeg if desired. Add the cheese.
Pour the mixture into the prepared dish and cover with the bread crumbs. Bake until heated through and bread crumbs are golden, about 25 minutes. All the dish to settle a few minutes before serving.