The recent string of bad luck I mentioned a few posts back included the unfortunate side effect of kicking me out of my apartment for a few days, which means I spent Memorial Day weekend in a hotel room, eating crappy room service and takeout. So I was very glad to swing by the co-op on my way back home this week, and even more glad when I saw fresh, bright red bunches of one of my favorite vegetable “discoveries”: Swiss chard!
I say “discovery” because I’m a recent convert to the joys of Swiss chard. Here is my dirty little vegetarian secret, readers: while I spent seven years as a vegetarian, I never really liked many vegetables. We’ll get into what that did to my health (not to mention weight) in some future post, but it stemmed from my being a truly picky eater, growing up and well into my twenties. So when I decided to start eating meat again, I knew I needed to recommit to vegetables, too, or risk being a meat-and-potatoes eater, which would not be good for either my waistline or my heart.
So I got adventurous, or at least, as adventurous as I was willing to, and started buying at least one new vegetable at a time—whenever I made a trip to the co-op or placed an order with my a la carte CSA. And one fateful week, that meant I ended up with a big, flashy bunch of rainbow-stemmed Swiss chard.
I had no idea what to do with it. And most people don’t—it’s a leafy green, but doesn’t look like something you can shred up into a salad, or just eat raw. It’s gigantic. And colorful! A quick visit to the internet later, though, I had some information and a few very promising recipes.
Chard (pronounced with a hard “ch” sound like charge) comes in many varieties, all with enormous, extravagant leaves and brightly-colored stems in many colors. You can eat both the leaves and the stems, though the two have different tastes and purposes. The leaves tastes a lot like a thicker, crunchier spinach (chard’s cousin) with a hint of sweetness, while the stems are more pungent, like a flavorful celery/leek combo. Chard is actually a member of the beet family, which I think helps explain its bitter/sweet flavor.
Swiss chard is also incredibly good for you—based on nutritional density and variety, it is the second richest vegetable in the world (after spinach)! So it’s worth a shot.
My first go at Swiss chard, several years ago, was this yummy pasta concoction from Vegetarian Times. This dish was delicious, but a bit overwrought. I’m not a big fan of recipes that I need to buy many specific ingredients for that I can’t easily reuse over and over, and until I find a few other recipes with golden raisins and heavy cream, this one stays a specialty, rather than a staple.
This past autumn, then, when I took another run at chard, I was thrilled to stumble upon and try this simple, creamy pasta sauce steeped with chard, tomato and red onion.
Unbelievably flavorful, it even won over Scott to chard on his first taste of the vegetable! (Those are big, momentous successes for a picky eater like myself—whenever I convince someone else to try something new, I feel I’m balancing out all of the times I’ve turned down a food I never even bothered to taste.) Plus, this recipe takes only about 20 minutes start to finish, including the easy veggie prep time, and is constructed completely of things I always have in the house, when chard is seasonally available.
Fast, easy, delicious. What more could you ask for in a recipe?
Scott recently lamented to me the difficulty of encountering leafy greens at the grocery store. There are so many varieties, he said, even subsets within types, that just the sight of them at the grocery store can be overwhelming. What’s the difference between lacinato kale and black kale? Between dandelion greens and mustard greens? And to complicate matters, I said, there is a difference. The flavors are so distinctive from one type to the next, and a misuse of the particular strengths of one green will so often lead to a bitter, burnt taste in a dish, that the threat of failure puts him right off, pushes potential shoppers along to the safe bell peppers and tomatoes.
My advice to him then, and to you all now, is take it one step at a time. Grab one type of produce with which you are unfamiliar next time you’re at the store, and then find a recipe uniquely suited to that vegetable. That recipe will be tailored specifically to the flavor profile of the vegetable, and will help you develop an understanding of how that vegetable should be used.
You all don’t know me well enough yet to fully understand when I say this, but if I can do it, so can you. I’m a huge klutz. (Really, a huge klutz. I once hit myself on the head taking a can of PAM out of the cabinet. My own hand, hitting my own head.) And I’ve never been a good cook. But it really is as easy as
- Buy something
- Find a recipe.
- Try it!
And trust me, if you’re going to try and expand your vegetable horizons, swiss chard is a much easier place to begin than, say, a hubbard squash.