We have spotted sea beet on the sandy dunes near my parents’ house in Dorset. And, more recently, we’ve noticed it pushing defiantly through the shingle beach at Santa Marinella in Lazio. It’s a rugged and edible coastal plant, with glossy, gently serrated leaves, that thrives near tidelines in Europe, Africa and Asia, and it is the ancestor of all cultivated beets (or, more precisely, Beta vulgaris). Many beets are cultivated for their swollen roots: sugar beet, red beet (beetroot), and the wonderfully named mangelwurzel, or fodder beet, all of which have edible leaves, too. Others, notably spinach beet and Swiss chard, are grown primarily for their leaves and fleshy midribs. That beetroot and chard are related was a revelation almost as satisfying as discovering that the woman at the bookshop is the cousin of the man at the chemist (it’s all in the eyebrows).
In his masterpiece Nosedive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells, Harold McGee begins the soil chapter with the Roman naturalist Pliny, who thought the smell of fertile soil was the mixed breath of sun and earth. McGee then leaps 2,000 years ahead and recounts how Australian scientists named the smell of dry rock and earth being moistened petrichor, from the Greek petri (rock) and ichor (blood of the gods). Also how scientists identified the bacteria that creates volatile molecules in soil and named these particles geosmins, geo meaning “earth” and osmḗ smell.
For a long time, biologists thought that beets got their distinctive, earthy-musty smell from the soil they grow in. But then experiments in 2003 demonstrated that they make their own geosmins, the exact amount depending on the species and colour. The more roots and depth of color a variety has, the more geosmins. Hence the deep, earthy-musty smell of beetroot, and the milder earthy-breath of chard (and our slightly damp bathroom wall).
It is the ones with fleshy midribs and earthy breath that are required this week. Swiss chard with broad, flattened white stems, and tender, glossy leaves is ideal here. One big bunch, two recipes, inspired by Simon Hopkinson and his brilliant book The Vegetarian Option. The stems are boiled until tender, covered with a duvet of bechamel, and baked, while the leaves are wilted in a pan with olive oil, chilli and garlic. Stems and leaves are then reunited on your plate. First, wash the chard, then cut the white-stemmed midribs from the green leaves either by cutting or pulling – as Jane Grigson notes in her Vegetable Book– sometimes scissors are best for doing this. Put the green leaves to one side.
Cooking brings out sweetness and subdues the earthy-musty geosmins, as does bechamel, while chilli lives everything up. Stems and leaves reunited on your plate.
Chard stem gratin and chard greens with garlic and chilli
Prep 10 minutes
cooking 25 mins
1 large bunch of thick-ribbed Swiss chard
salt and black pepper
400ml whole milk
1 small onionpeeled and studded with 3 cloves
30g butterplus extra for greasing
A handful of fine breadcrumbs
1 garlic cloveleft whole, peeled and bashed
A small red chillichopped
First wash the chard, then cut the white midribs from the green leaves – either by pulling, using a knife or with scissors. Set the greens aside.
For the gratin, cut the midribs into 10cm lengths, stripping away any stringy bits, then cook in salted boiling water until tender.
Warm the milk and clove-studded onion slowly over a low flame. In another pan, heat the butter until it starts to foam, whisk in the flour, then pull from the heat. Add a little of the milk and whisk to a smooth paste. Return the pan to the heat, and whisk in the remaining milk. When it almost boils, lower the heat and simmer, stirring frequently until the sauce is thick. Add three quarters of the parmesan and salt and pepper to taste.
Layer the chard stalks in a shallow dish brushed with oil or melted butter. Pour the bechamel over and top the gratin with the remaining parmesan and breadcrumbs. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the top is golden and edges are bubbling.
For the chard leaves with garlic and chilli, cut the leaves into thick ribbons. Put some olive oil, the garlic and chilli in the pan and fry gently for a minute, then add the leaves and stir until wilted. Continue cooking for five to 10 minutes, tasting and adding some more minced garlic you like.