Swiss Chard: A Hardy Summertime Staple

Cooking Fresh Summer 2012 Issue

Swiss Chard: A Hardy Summertime Staple

By Dani Lind | Photo By Jim Klousia 0

Everyone thinks of summer as salad season, but for a northern gardener, high summer is a terrible time for salads. When the sun is at its zenith and the temperatures soar, most salad greens turn bitter and go to seed. Great care and energy (not to mention water) must be taken to produce lettuces and baby spinach in the middle of summer. Don’t get me wrong, there are some amazing farmers and gardeners who make it happen because, dang it, consumers demand salad year-round. But if seasonal eating is your thing, you might want to consider eating more hardy cooked greens during the height of summer, greens that can withstand the heat, like kale or collards or one of my favorite vegetables—chard.

Chard wasn’t always a favorite for me. Its slightly bitter flavor, caused primarily by its oxalic acid content, was a bit much when eaten raw or cooked plain. But I still always grew it because I knew how nutritious it was and because it’s so pretty in the garden. Plus, it will hold all season without bolting or requiring replanting in successions like spinach or lettuce.

Years ago my husband and I built an attached greenhouse onto the front of our old farmhouse. It wasn’t until I started planting it full of hardy greens for the winter that I really got to know and appreciate eating lots of this top producer. 

The greenhouse is about eight feet by 21 feet and consists of two long raised beds that we plant directly into. I’m a very lucky girl because in addition to a door to the outside, the greenhouse has a door directly into our kitchen. As long as the sun is shining (the greenhouse is unheated), I can harvest hardy greens and herbs in my slippers and pajamas most of the winter. In those months, these fresh greens are a real treat to supplement what we’ve put up from the previous summer in the freezer or pantry. But when it gets really cold and dark in early January, all but the toughest plants die or go into hibernation until it warms up a bit. Chard, however, is a survivor—and a prolific survivor at that. 

We northerners grow chard as an annual because our harsh winters kill it off. But botanically, the whole beet family (of which chard is a part) are biennials, meaning they flower and set seed their second year if allowed to grow in a protected environment. Turns out, my greenhouse qualifies. But here’s what really blows my mind: I’ve had chard plants survive not two years, but four!

One very special white-stemmed plant grew a 12-inch knobby bulb at its base where new stems would grow out as quick as I could pick them. It flowered numerous times, but unlike most vegetables, its leaves didn’t get bitter or tough while it was flowering. Instead, it was the most sweet, mild and tender chard I’ve ever eaten. And boy, did we eat a lot of it those few winters. I estimate that I harvested at least 100 bunches worth from that one plant. How could I not love and respect such a vegetable after that?

Nutritionally, chard is one of the healthiest vegetables around. One cup of cooked (but not overcooked!) chard has over 700 percent of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin K, over 200 percent RDA of vitamin A, and over 50 percent RDA of vitamin C. It’s also rich in minerals like magnesium, potassium, iron and calcium. The pigments that provide its vibrant colors are unusually full of phytonutrients—antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds that can potentially help regulate blood sugar, maintain bone density, and alleviate arthritis, heart disease and high blood pressure.

The only nutritional drawback to chard is its high oxalic acid content. When eaten in excess, oxalates can build up in the body and cause stress to the kidneys and gallbladder, potentially crystallizing into kidney stones. But I stress—only when eaten in excess. Boiling chard for 3 minutes before cooking it can reduce its oxalic acid content by 50 percent. If you have a sensitive system, don’t rule chard out just yet; simply start slowly with cooked chard to allow your body to acclimate. Normally healthy folks, however, shouldn’t have a problem if they eat chard or other high oxalate foods like spinach a few times a week. 

Outside, chard is best from June into September. Direct seed or transplant starts into your garden in spring or summer. At the store or market, look for bunches with leaves that are still crisp and haven’t started to yellow or wilt, with stems that haven’t started to brown at the bottom. Store in plastic in your fridge and eat it up within a few days. If you have an excess, you can blanch chopped leaves in boiling water for two minutes, cool immediately in ice water, drain and freeze; then use it in any recipe calling for frozen spinach.

Young chard leaves are delicious fresh as a salad green and can often be found in baby salad mixes. Bigger bunched chard can be used in all sorts of dishes— it plays well with others and is delicious on its own when cooked properly. The stems are a nice, colorful, crunchy vegetable that can be substituted texturally for celery or fennel stems, and the leaves are a terrific cooking green. When cooking with both, I like to add the stems a few minutes earlier than the leaves because they take longer to cook.

Here are some serving suggestions to begin your chard adventures:

• Boil, drain, and toss with butter or oil, a squeeze of lemon, and fresh cracked pepper.
• Use wilted chard as a filling for omelets, pizza, calzones, empanadas, enchiladas, vegetable pies, quiches, spanakopita and samosas.
• Add wilted chard to pasta, potato, bean or grain salads.
• Sauté with garlic or green onions and toss with pasta and aged cheese.
• Sauté with bacon, garlic, and a splash of vinegar and hot sauce and bit of sorghum for a southern flare. Toss in cooked beans for a full meal. This is also good at room temperature as a salad.
• Add chopped greens to soups or sauces at the end of the cooking time.
• Steam whole leaves and use to wrap dolmas as you would cabbage or grape leaves.

Dani Lind spent 10 years as the produce manager/buyer at the Viroqua Food Co-op and now owns and operates Rooted Spoon Culinary, a catering business that focuses on local, seasonal foods. Dani loves to grow and preserve her own vegetables, herbs and fruits and help her husband raise grass-fed steers on their farm near Soldiers Grove.

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