Despite all the holiday gaiety, December still has the bite of late autumn. Here in the Northeast, landscapes take on a barren silhouette as daylight hours dwindle with each page turn of the calendar. It’s a time for sharp flavors. Swiss chard is one of them.
“It’s the perfect fall dish,” said Michael Ryan, sous-chef at Circa in High Bridge. “When you think fall, if you’re thinking wilting greens, Swiss chard is the first one that comes to mind.”
Available year round and grown locally from spring through fall, the assertive green pairs best with the season’s heartiest entrees, such as venison, roasts and savory poultry dishes. “You don’t want to use it when you’re doing a very subtle dish,” said Ryan.
Currently at Circa, he combines Swiss chard with apples, mushrooms, and caramelized onion and fennel as an accompaniment to pan-roasted chicken. He also uses a chiffonade of chard along with caramelized onions, walnuts and salsify to dress kabocha squash gnocchi. In both dishes the bite of the Swiss chard balances the sweetness of the other ingredients. “Swiss chard definitely has a great sharpness to it. The flavor sets it apart from collards, kale, and other braising greens,” said Ryan.
Indeed, Swiss chard offers anyone who enjoys eating cooked greens yet one more option, noted Kurt Alstede of Alstede Farms in Chester who, given the mild weather of late, expects to be harvesting Swiss chard well into December. “It’s not that there’s a Swiss chard season separate from the other seasons. It’s [a question of] do you want to have something different instead of spinach, collards or kale?” he said.
Though often compared to other greens, both strong and mild, Swiss chard actually is a type of beet whose stalks and leaves have developed instead of its root. Its history stretches back to the hanging gardens of Babylon, but how the word “Swiss” came to be associated with it remains a mystery.
The most commonly found varieties sport deep green leaves on a white stalk. These include Fordhook Giant and Argentata. Charlotte and Ruby Red are two red-stalked types, which are also known as rhubarb chard. The stems of the multicolored Bright Lights variety can range from yellow and orange to lavender and crimson. An excellent source of vitamins A, C, E and K, Swiss chard is also rich in several B vitamins, as well as magnesium, potassium, calcium, zinc and other minerals.
Those unfamiliar with the vegetable may find its foot-long foliage intimidating, but it’s just as easy to handle as spinach. A few rinsings will wash away any grit clinging to the leaves. Then it’s just a matter of cutting them and the stems down to size.
“When you’re wilting Swiss chard in a pan with olive oil and garlic, the ribs won’t get cooked fully while the greens will get overcooked,” warned Ryan. Some recipes call for stripping the leaves off their stems and cooking the stems separately, or chopping the stems so they’ll cook evenly with the greens. Ryan suggested peeling the exterior fibers off the stems and cooking them first before adding the greens. After wilting down the chard in olive oil and garlic, he adds some chopped shallot and seasons the greens with salt and pepper before stirring in a bit of butter. Very broad Swiss chard stems can be treated like a separate vegetable and breaded and fried or baked. Complementary ingredients to combine with Swiss chard include raisins, pine nuts, olives, anchovies and smoked meats.
At market, fresh Swiss chard will appear vibrant and shiny, with firm, crisp stems. Highly perishable, it should be used as close to purchase as possible. If it must be stored, it should be refrigerated, unwashed, and kept away from apples, pears and other fruits that give off ethylene gas, which will dry out the greens. Thus handled, it should retain its characteristic and pleasing bite.