All You Need To Know About Swiss Chard – How To Cook It, What To Do With It, And Two Little-known Facts About It

“Anybody who’s been following my writing couldn’t help noticing how much I carry on about chard. These wonderful leaves belong to the same family as beetroot. When picked small they make a great contribution to leafy salads, both in flavour and with their magnificent red hue. But it is the large, mature, deep-green leaves – with stalks ranging from white to yellow, to red and orange – that I love so much.”

-Yotam Ottolenghi, Plenty

In an Italian supermarket recently I asked for spinach and was told the season was over but why didn’t I try ‘this’ pointing to little bunches of green leaves – ‘it’s similar’, I was assured.

On returning home and consulting my dictionary I discovered that ‘this’ was chard – I hadn’t recognised it as I’m used to the gloriously colourful red and golden rainbow type.

I thought ‘this’ was very good – a little nutty, earthier than spinach, and it was super-quick to cook, almost instant!

Types of chard

There are three types of Swiss chard (Beta Vulgaris subsp. cicla var. flavescens):

  • rainbow chard – see the photograph above – a mix of different types of coloured chard
  • ruby, red or rhubarb chard – with red stems
  • white-stemmed chard and yellow-stemmed chard

There is also another type of chard (not the ‘Swiss’ type) known as perpetual spinach, which has slightly thinner stems, and, not surprisingly, is even more like spinach.

Where does it originate? Why isn’t Swiss chard Swiss?

In spite of its name, however, Swiss chard does not come from Switzerland, but from Sicily (which explains perhaps why I find the white-stemmed type all over Sardinia – chard in general is very Italian). It’s described, in English at least (in Italian its name is ‘bietole’), as ‘Swiss’ because it was the  botanist Karl Koch who first distinguished between chard and French spinach. Just to further confuse matters, Koch was in fact German rather than Swiss…

guide to chard
Here you see the white chard. This one opened out like the ostrich fan of a burlesque dancer, yet it only produced enough for one person! One way to cook it is to heat the green parts with a little butter, salt, and dry vermouth.

Is it healthy?

The good news is that not only is it quick to cook and good to taste (unlike kale – see Kale Crisps, It’s The Only Way), it is also one of the most health-giving vegetables of all. It has over 700 times the recommended daily requirement of vitamin K (helping the bones to build up calcium and blood to coagulate), and 200 times the daily recommended intake of vitamin A (good for your eyesight and immune system).

How long does it keep?

The bad news is that it doesn’t keep long (about three days in the fridge in a perforated plastic bag), and it tends to wilt if you wash it before cooking.

Don’t cook it in an aluminium pan

And it will also turn an unappetising murky colour if you cook it in an aluminium pan due to the oxalates (naturally existing compounds) it contains.

How much do you need?

As a VERY rough guide you would need about 300g/10 oz for two people but it depends on how much green you can get off the stems….. If you think that the yield from the bunches in the two images above (with the vermouth) and below yielded almost the same, you see why.

short white-stemmed chard

When is the season for chard?

It’s in season June to August and October to April.

Growing it

The multicoloured Swiss chard, Fantasy, looks wonderful grown in wooden crates lined with hessian to keep the compost from drying out.

Some ways to cook it:

Note – the timings in the methods below are for small, young chard. If you have the heftier type, like the yellow-stemmed more cabbage-looking type below, you will need to cook for a little longer.

You can tell when it is done as it goes floppy – it wilts.

what to do with chard
If you have the heftier type of chard you will need to cook for a little longer.

1. Chinese-influenced method:

It’s best to separate the leaves from the stems. Then you can boil or stir fry (in olive oil or sesame oil and garlic, and maybe some sesame seeds and some good quality fermented soy sauce) the leaves for a couple of minutes maximum. The stems needs about a minute longer.

2. Traditional method:

If the chard is small (like the short white-stemmed type) you can simply:

  1. Shred it.
  2. Heat some butter and olive oil in a frying pan.
  3. Add the chard for about a minute and a half (you can also add a tablespoon of dry vermouth if you like).
  4. Sprinkle with smoked salt and paprika.

3. Gratin method (especially good with ham and a baked potato):

  1. Preheat your oven to about 210ºC – use the roasting oven of an Aga.
  2. Take a 300g/11 oz bag of prepared Swiss chard – or a couple of generous bunches, prepared as above and put into an oven-proof dish.
  3. Mix together 120ml/½ cup/about ¼ pint of double cream with 115g/1 cup grated cheddar or Gruyère and 1 tbsp mustard (ideally grainy) – pour over the chard.
  4. Grate over a couple of tablespoons of Parmesan.
  5. Bake for up to half an hour.

4. As a wrap:

For a very original lunch or picnic idea for using the large-leaved colourful chard (see featured image at the top of this post) go to Stephanie Eusabi’s excellent blog where she gives an idea for a Swiss chard wrap, with chicken, avocado and tomatoes.

5. With pine nuts, raisins and cinnamon:

Fry a shallot until just transparent, and then add chard, pine nuts (or pumpkin seeds), some raisins soaked in tea and a sprinkling of cinnamon. Particularly good as an accompaniment to French boeuf bourgignon and English dumplings.

6. With artichokes and broad beans

Follow this link for the recipe, or go here for a recipe for chard and flageolet beans grain salad.

7. In an omelette

Michel Roux Jr suggests using chard, along with pancetta, shallot and gruyère, to make an omelette.

8. With turmeric and ginger

Take off the green part of the leaves and shred. Stir fry in butter, with turmeric, black pepper, grated fresh ginger, and a splash of soy sauce.

Chard with turmeric and ginger

Other, unexpected, things to do with chard:

  1. It is very good with celery – chop up a couple of sticks of celery and fry as above before adding the chard.
  2. A delicious option is my recipe for Verdi’s poached eggs on a bed of spinach or chard with white truffle sauce
  3. You can add young leaves, uncooked, into a salad.
  4. Make cheesy croutons (either in a frying pan, mixing in some goats’ cheese at the end of the process, or spread a baguette with goats’ cheese and grill, then cut into croutons). Warm up a tin of beans (ideally flageolet) with the chard torn into it. Serve, with a lemon vinaigrette drizzled over and topped with the cheesy croutons.
  5. Ottolenghi mixes his (see Simple) with chickpeas, yoghurt, cumin and carrots and serves with steamed rice as ‘comfort food at its best’.
  6. Add it to a quiche with Taleggio cheese, peas and roasted asparagus.
  7. Another idea from Ottolenghi is to serve with tins of plum tomatoes, spinach and flaked almonds.
  8. An idea from Jamie Oliver (Jamie Cooks Italy) who had left a batch of greens near his wood oven and thus created, according to him, ‘an incredibly delicious mistake and a lovely handheld receptacle that, when filled with a little beaten ricotta, chilli and anchovies, people just go mad for’. Basically, you lay the leaves flat for 20 minutes in a low oven (150°C). Use your imagination as to what to fill these with – try ricotta and pesto.

“Years later, when I told her I was growing my own Swiss chard but didn’t know how to cook it, she immediately suggested steaming it and then covering it in heavy cream, mixed with a teaspoon of Dijon and grated pecorino, before baking it in a hot oven. She suggested serving it over polenta, which I do now pretty much every time I have Swiss chard.”

-Isabel Vincent, Dinner With Edward

celery with chard
celery goes very well with chard…“not a lot of people know that…”

To browse the rest of this site (there are posts on all kinds of surprising things) follow this link.

Music to cook to while cooking

Regular readers of Saucy Dressings will know that, where I can, I will add a bit of relevant music to a post – for example, The Simplest Way to Cook Trout or Salmon is accompanied by Schubert’s The Trout. Little Red Rooster – Quick Chicken With Paprika has The Rolling Stones to keep you company.

The links to this piece of wonderful music, are, I admit, a bit tenuous. Suffice to say that csardas is pronounced ‘chards’…. So, below you have Czardas by Vittorio Monti played by the incredible violinist, Nemanja Radulovic.

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