No one is quite sure why the leafy green is called “Swiss” chard, mainly by speakers of English only. Other languages and peoples call it merely “chard” or prefix that word with one of the colors in which it commonly happens: green, red (or crimson), white. We Americans invented the “rainbow” label for the array of pink, magenta, orange and yellow that chard can sport.
For white chard, the most widely grown and oldest variety, the British often use a more precise color — celadon — a sort of jade-tinged ivory.
Newly harvested chard is just now making its way to our regional farmers’ markets although it is available from other parts of the globe all year long.
The “Swiss” part of the name is odd because chard’s scientific Latin name is Beta vulgaris var. cicla, this last term a probable reference to Sicily, for chard originated in the Mediterranean Basin and remains very popular as an eating vegetable in southern France, throughout Italy and on the Sea’s many islands. The Balearic Islanders make of its leaves a pocket filled with pine nuts and raisins, then steamed, a clear throwback to the Arabian influence in the region.
As its Latin name suggests, it is a member of the beet family, though, unlike the beet, chard forms no edible root. We eat only its magnificent leaves and sturdy stems (which sometimes reach two feet in length), considered by ancient Mediterraneans as a substitute for celery.
Because the ancient Latin and old French word for chard meant “thistle,” one scholar believes that the prefix “Swiss” was used to distinguish chard unmistakably from thistle, a much gnarlier and not easily approached, well, weed. (An edible version of thistle is grown and called “cardoon.”) But again, why “Swiss,” no one appears to know or by whom.
Chard is sturdier than spinach and is also less bitter. It shares with spinach the bitterness of oxalic acidity (you know this acidity as the defining bitterness of rhubarb) but, in chard, the acidity is tempered with greater sweetness.
Unless the chard leaf is very young and small, cooks worldwide need to prepare separately its leaves and stems, perhaps why so many do not and simply pitch the stems. Chard has been called “the chicken of greens” because its two parts, like the fowl’s breast and thigh, need different or varying applications of heat and are difficult to cook simultaneously and together.
But the stems have more “chard-y” flavor than the leaves, so cook them as well. Cleaned and chopped, stem pieces take a mere few minutes more heat (sometimes less). They also add a pleasant crunch. No good to toss away all that.
Sautéed chard leaves retain more texture than the same treatment of spinach; they soften toothsomely well before disassembling. To render them silken like raw, damp seaweed, cook them in a wet environment (in soups, or with soft-cooked eggs, or under a sauce) for a bit longer than a quick sauté.
Adapted from a recipe for Garlicky Swiss Chard in “Vegetables Illustrated” (America’s Test Kitchen, 2019). Serves 4-6 as a side or topping.
- 10-12 chard leaves, stems removed and chopped into 1/2-inch thick pieces, on the bias
- 4 tablespoons good quality extra virgin olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled and slivered or minced
- Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (Mexican, Urfa, Aleppo, etc.)
- 2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar or 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Thoroughly wash and shake off excess water from the chard leaves and strip out the stems, either by carefully pulling them as if ripping off the spine of a book or knifing along them on both sides to separate them from the leaves. Stack the leaf halves atop each other and cut into 1-inch wide strips, diagonally.
In a large heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, over medium heat, warm 2 tablespoons of the oil and, when shimmering, cook the garlic until it is aromatic, about 90 seconds or a bit more.
Stir in the chard stem pieces, lower heat to medium-low, cover and cook until softened, but just so, about 5 minutes, stirring once or twice. Remove the stems and set aside on a warm plate. Add 1 tablespoon more oil to the pot, then stir in the chard ribbons. Cook the ribbons, stirring up and folding over or using flip flops, for 3 minutes. (Add a splash of water or apple juice if drying out.) Season liberally with salt and black pepper.
Add back the reserved stem pieces, the red pepper flakes, the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and the rice vinegar or lemon juice and toss everything together to warm. Serve.
With pasta: Cook portions of long-form pasta (bucatini, linguine) and top with servings of the cooked chard.
Withbeans: Add 1 cup cooked white beans (Great Northern, cannellini) to the cooked chard before serving. Or add the beans and some broth to the cooked chard to fashion a thick vegetable soup.
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