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Groundwork: Chard's double punch

Editor's note: While Adrian Higgins is away, Smithsonian Gardens education specialist Cindy Brown was inspired to post thoughts on the fall garden:

Swiss chard on display in the Smithsonian's garden. (Joe Brunetti)

As the Victory Garden slides out of summer and creeps into fall, the cast of veggies changes. Cucumbers, melons and corn have been ripped out of the soil. Okra still towers above all, but the plants protest dropping temperatures with a cessation of pod formation. More of the giant palmate leaves are on the ground than on the plant. Soon only the woody skeleton will stand.

Recipe Included

Although the remaining tomato plants appreciated the recent rains, chilly nights have tinged the leaves with a bronze cast. Small fruits dot the vines and slowly turn from green to an anemic pink; luscious, plump red orbs are only a memory. It is sad to see old friends decline and disappear, but keep the mourning brief. It is time, once again, for the cool crops to rule.

As each crop dies, Joe Brunetti, the Victory gardener, is ready with a replacement. Beds don’t remain empty for long. Having a succession of plants ready in the wings is a great way to keep vegetable gardens productive and menus filled with options. Red and green cabbage plants replaced the corn; broccoli and kale fill the old cucumber bed.

All the young transplants look so fresh and vibrant, but one vegetable shines above all. The season’s showstopper pulsates with electrifying color. Ruby-red stems, capped with puckered green leaves demand visitors’ attention.

“Swiss chard is absolutely stunning as an ornamental and delicious as an edible. Two for one!,” says Joe. In this case, beauty is more than skin deep. Joe is growing the variety Rhubarb Red with stems as red as Dorothy’s slippers. Bright Lights, Fordhook Giant, Fantasia and Golden Sunrise are other varieties available in a rainbow of colors.

Other common names for Swiss chard allude to its flavor, growth habit and secret identity: Silverbeet, Perpetual Spinach, Spinach Beet and Seakale Beet.

Swiss chard (Betula vulgaris) is a leafy form of the regular garden beet. One was bred for its leaves, the other for its root. Chew on a raw leaf and its secret is revealed; both plants share the same earthy, bitter taste. Joe recommends eating the young leaves raw in a salad or the mature leaves and stems gently sauteed or steamed.

Two plantings are growing in the Victory Garden. The first went in the second week of August and is large enough to be made into dinner. The second, planted the last week of August, is struggling a bit. Joe says its slow growth is due to a lack of irrigation and a pesky squirrel that kept digging around the Swiss chard’s roots.

Luckily, Swiss chard does not suffer from insect attacks; however, it is a favorite of several four-legged visitors. Deer and rabbits love to gnosh on the leaves. Maybe they are just trying to get their daily dose of vitamins A, K and C. Swiss chard has high levels of all three and is low in calories. Pests that do a considerable amount of damage, but are hard to catch in the act, are finches: gold, house and purple. One day the leaves will be glorious flags, the next, they will appear to have been peppered with buckshot. If this happens to your chard, don’t blame the damage on giant slugs. Hide behind the garden shed and watch to see who comes in for a landing. Guaranteed, you’ll soon see loopy feathered friends drop-in on the chard and begin to peck the dickens out of the leaves leaving each plant lacy and well ventilated.

Even though Swiss chard is a cool-season plant preferring temperatures in the 60s, it still grows in summer’s heat. Plants will tolerate a couple of frosts, but when the honest cold sinks in, the leaves turn to mush. Keep the roots in the ground and the leaves will re-sprout in early spring. Harvest those leaves quickly because chard is a biennial; once the temperatures start to climb, a seed stalk forms, the root rots and the plant dies.

There is still time to add Swiss chard to your garden, but only as transplants; it is too late to grow by seed. Several nurseries have plants in stock, right beside the pansies. Try mixing the two in a container for a colorful, edible display.

-- Cynthia A. Brown

(Cynthia A. Brown)

Swiss Chard With Raisins and Feta Cheese
6 servings

Serve on a bed of brown basmati rice.

1 large bunch Swiss chard (about 1 pound)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons golden raisins
1/3 cup water
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
2 ounces (1/4 cup) feta cheese, crumbled

Tear the Swiss chard leaves away from the stems and mid-ribs. Chop the stems into 1/2-inch pieces. Roll the leaves into a "cigar" and then cut into bite-size strips.

Warm a large saute pan over medium-low heat. Add the oil and garlic. Cook for a minute or two, until the garlic is lightly golden, then add the chopped stems and ribs. Increase the heat to medium. Cook for about 4 minutes, until they begin to be translucent. Add the raisins and cook for 1 minute.

Add the leaves and the water; cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the leaves are wilted. Stir in the pomegranate molasses, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for a minute or two.

Transfer to a serving bowl. Top with the feta cheese and serve immediately.

Per serving: 100 calories, 3 g protein, 9 g carbohydrates, 7 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 270 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar

By Cynthia A. Brown  | October 11, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork, Recipes  | Tags:  Groundwork, recipes  
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Next: Beer: Stone's tap takeover


Sounds delicious - also sounds like it would make an excellent pasta topping.

Posted by: heinpe | October 12, 2010 9:08 AM | Report abuse

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