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Groundwork: Swiss Chard, Jewel of Leafy Greens

The darkest variety of Swiss chard in the medley known as Bright Lights. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

Whatever cooks think of Swiss chard, gardeners view it as a true friend and one of the most cherished leafy greens under home cultivation. It is heat tolerant, cold tolerant, disease resistant (although chipmunks, rabbits and deer can be a problem) and can be eaten after a month as a baby green or left in for almost a year to harvest as mature as needed. There is one more aspect of chard: It is gorgeous. Above is a picture I took last year at a garden in Pennsylvania of the darkest member of a chard mix called Bright Lights. The stems are a magenta pink rising to a purple black leaf, which is wrinkled or savoyed.

Bright LIghts was developed by a New Zealand breeder named John Eaton and is essentially a multi-colored medley of chard, of green and purple leaves and, moreover, stalks that are white, gold, bright pink, red and orange. You don't need this mixture, however, to create a beautiful scene with your chard. Some gardeners prefer to grow them as stands of like-minded stalks. Fordhook Giant is a classic white-stalked variety; the stalks resemble celery. Rhubarb, no surprise here, is a variety that resembles its namesake, but is way sweeter.

At Green Spring Gardens in Northern Virginia, Cindy Brown and the gardeners have persisted, in spite of deer invaders, in growing a pretty variety named Orange Fantasia. Its stalks are more golden than orange, and the color becomes more pronounced the older and thicker it becomes. It's a striking plant.

It becomes hard for the gardener to harvest chard, because it is so ornamental, but you can snip the outer stalks and new ones will grow from the center. Chard is the same species of plant as the beetroot. Which came first may be open to debate. The ancient Greeks grew chard. Along the way, gardeners selected beets with a tendency to create a swollen root and smaller leaves and leaf stalks, and, conversely, chard growers took the seed from plants with the largest, most colorful stalks, biggest leaves, and no bulb.

Chard now robust in growth was sown as seed in March. While it doesn't love summer's heat here, it will resist bolting in all but the worst of heat waves. You can sow chard again in August and mature plants in the fall will make it through most winters; even if the outer leaves are frost burned, new ones will grow with a vengeance the following March and April.

Green Spring's garden, here at midpoint in the season, is a diverse community of plants at various stages. The gardeners have been harvesting spring sown onions including the squat Cippolini, the red bulbed Red Baron and the white Superstar.

Although the elephant garlic is blooming, its bulbs are quite edible still. This was dug last Thursday from a stand created last fall by sowing individual cloves. Elephant garlic's gargantuan size makes it a formidable-looking allium, but it is the mildest of the garlics, and is more closely allied to the leek.

Freshly dug elephant garlic. The yellow growths near the roots are bulbets that can be planted to produce new bulbs. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

The pole beans and tomatoes, finally, are beginning to grow now that it's hot, though harvest is still three or four weeks away for both.

The young okra and cow peas are doing well, and offer other options for late summer. The vegetable garden is often one step back but two forward. The season marches on, but so does the harvest and the promise of much still ahead.

A little bit off the top. Deer go to hairdresser school by practicing on cucumber vines at Green Spring. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

Until Cindy can get a full-blown deer fence installed around the garden, she has been netting individual plants, with varying success. Whatever protection there was for the cucumber vines, it wasn't enough. The deer last week decided to trim the cukes.

The vines are now fully netted and a crop is expected with a couple of weeks or three. Note all the flowers, though they look to me like non fruiting male blossoms, which appear in advance of the female blooms. Stay tuned.

-- Adrian Higgins

Cindy: Swiss chard is delicious simply sauteed with olive oil, onion and garlic. You can get fancier by adding raisins and pine nuts to the mix. But because it grows so easily in the garden (or window boxes), you’ll eventually want to expand your repertoire. Many varieties are available: Bright Lights, Fordhook Giant, Rhubarb, Ruby Red and Golden Sunrise, to name a few.

The following recipe is easy to prepare, smells fantastic while it is cooking and stores well in the refrigerator for a couple of days. Its only drawback: The finished dish would not win any beauty contests. Dress it up with yogurt or sour cream, sprigs of cilantro or basil and serve it with warm garlic nan. After one bite, its looks won't matter.

Swiss Chard and Lentil Stew
8 to 10 servings

MAKE AHEAD: Like most stews, this tastes even better the next day. Based on a recipe in the December 2005 issue of Bon Appetit magazine.

1 pound Swiss chard, leaves and stems separated and chopped (9 cups total)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large Vidalia onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice (2 cups)
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
3 medium carrots, cut into 1/2-inch dice (at least 1 cup)
2 tablespoons garam marsala
5 tablespoons curry powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
15 ounces canned no-salt chickpeas, rinsed and drained
2 1/4 cups dried red lentils, picked over to remove any foreign matter
4 cups vegetable broth
2 cups water (may substitute vegetable broth)
12 large basil leaves, rolled tightly then cut into thin strips (1/4 cup), plus a few sprigs for garnish
Plain yogurt, for garnish

It is easier to wash the Swiss chard after it has been chopped. Because the stems take longer to cook than the leaves, you must separate the two. Either pull the leaf carefully from the stem or cut the leaf in a V-shape separating the stem from the leaf. Once separated, dice the stems, wash and place in a bowl. Place one leaf on top of the other, and then roll the leaves. Cut through all the leaves; basically you are created skinny, long strips (a chiffonade). Wash, drain well and place in a bowl.

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a Dutch oven or large saute pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until it starts to turn golden.

Add the garlic, carrots and stems of the Swiss chard; cook for 6 to 8 minutes, stirring often; the vegetables should be crisp-tender.

Add the garam masala, curry powder, cayenne pepper, salt and black pepper to taste; stir to incorporate. Add the chickpeas; stir to incorporate. Add the leaves of Swiss chard, the lentils, vegetable broth and water; stir to combine. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Boil for 1 minute then reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook for 10 to 20 minutes, stirring often, until the lentils are tender; this will depend on the freshness of the lentils. Add the basil and stir to combine. Taste and adjust salt and pepper as needed.

To serve, divide among individual bowls. Garnish each portion with a dollop of plain yogurt and a sprig of basil.

Per serving (based on 10): 281 calories, 17 g protein, 44 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 479 mg sodium, 11g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  July 20, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, chard, cucumbers, gardening, garlic  
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I have 8 chard plants in my yard, which are mostly doing well (some are shaded near the tomatoes and they seem to be doing the best right now). I probably pick 8-12 leaves a week these days, which is a lot of chard for me as I live alone.

I like chard a lot, but mostly have recipes for the leafy part. I save the stems and use them when I can (in vegetable stock, and in minestrone last night instead of celery), but am frequently overwhelmed. Anyone have any thoughts on recipes that use only the stems?

Posted by: ArlingtonSMP | July 20, 2009 9:22 AM | Report abuse


Chop the stems, saute them with butter or olive oil, some thinly sliced onion if you like, for about 15 minutes. Add - if you want - some minced garlic and a mash anchovy or 2 (optional). Put in baking dish, cover with thick bechamel (white sauce), top with bread crumbs. Bake: yummy.

The chopped stems, blanched briefly, also freeze very well for later use.

Sylvie Rowand

Posted by: rowandk | July 20, 2009 10:15 AM | Report abuse

me again.

I don't do this gratin "recipe" only with white-stemmed chard. The colors bleed into the sauce for the other chard, and I don't like the way it looks....

Sylvie Rowand

Posted by: rowandk | July 20, 2009 10:27 AM | Report abuse

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