While I have written quite a few bulletins on vegetables, it has occurred to me as I walked about the vegetable garden this week, that I have somehow ignored Swiss chard, also known as chard, silverbeet, perpetual spinach , spinach beet, crab beet, bright lights, seakale beet, and mangold. Quite a few names for what seems a rather understated vegetable. I guess I favor Swiss Chard over chard because. for me, there is something very Swiss about chard’s rather undramatic blandness.
But Swiss Chard’s origins have nothing to do with Switzerland. It didn’t originate there, nor have the Swiss exhibited any creativity in its preparation. Chard seems to have been domesticated from wild species in the eastern Mediterranean, and has played a significant culinary role in this region ever since. When exactly the different species of Swiss Chard emerged is rather unclear, because of its similarity and close relationship to beets, being from the chenopod family, which includes beets, spinach, and, strangely enough, quinoa. The earliest chard varieties known have been traced back to Sicily. Apparently the word Swiss was attached to chard only in the nineteenth century by the writers for seed catalogues, in order to distinguish chard from varieties of French spinach.
I guess I am more attracted to writing about vegetables that have a more exciting past, such as associations with Greek gods and goddesses, like basil, or to vegetables that have attracted all manner of bizarre superstition, such as garlic and onions. Or vegetables that not only have nutritional value but some danger to health as well, such as fava beans. Or a plethora of culinary uses such as eggplant. Or distinguished patrons, such as Catherine de Medici at the French court. Chard is definitely Swiss in the blandness of its associations and lack of a history. It is a homely vegetable that is what it is.
But what it lacks, it makes up in spades with its nutritional value, one of the highest, bested only by its near relative–spinach. Like all members of the chenopod family it is extremely high in phytonutrient content. It is particularly high in vitamins A, K, and C, as well as being rich in mineral, dietary fiber, and protein.
I am sometimes puzzled by the anonymity of Swiss chard compared with the current craze for kale. Like lemmings, today’s young foodies all seem to have rushed to enthusiasm for a vegetable, which to me has all the attributes of particularly dry paper. But who can argue with fashion, which, after all, so much of today’s good eating seems to be about I am wondering if there will ever be, in my lifetime, a stampede for Swiss chard.
While the interest in Swiss chard is tepid here, Its attributes are fully appreciated in the Mediterranean world. It has a subtler taste than spinach, and unlike its cousin, it has the advantage of a growing season that is not restricted to spring and fall, thriving happily through summer. We’ve even managed a winter season in our greenhouse these past few years.
I must admit that I was not so aware of Swiss chard in the cuisine of western Turkey, where I lived years ago. But I have learned since, from cookbooks, that the Armenian population that once lived in Anatolia seems to have made great use of it. Stuffed chard is a particularly delicious Armenian way of preparing chard. Using the same stuffings and methods as you would ordinarily use for making yaprak dolmasi (stuffed grape leaves) or stuffed cabbage, you simply remove the chard stems from the leaves, blanche the leaves, and then stuff them with a dollop of your favorite rice and herb or rice and ground lamb combination. Then fold the chard leaves appropriately into small packets, and put them in a braising pan, the bottom of which is lined with the chard stalks, add water and olive oil and braise slowly. Not only are the stuffed Swiss chard packets delicious, but the stems once braised make a tasty side dish.
We have also learned from the French to combine chopped chard and spinach and to braise the mix lightly with olive oil and garlic. The two cousins tend to enrich each other in the process, the Swiss Chard picking up on the sharper taste of spinach, while the spinach takes on a more complex flavor.
Well, all this chit chat bout Swiss chard reminds me that we happen to have a beautiful bed of Swiss chard ready to be picked. And next to it a lovely bed of spinach.