About this time every summer, there will be a rainy spell. The night will turn a little cooler and the cicadas will sing a little louder.
And that’s when I start looking for a reason to turn on the oven.
One of the first things I bake is a chard gratin. This got started more than 10 years ago with a Community-support agriculture (CSA) box and my earnest attempt to appreciate some previously less familiar vegetables. Chard, for instance. I’m a greens-loving Southerner but chard wasn’t in our garden and I never got to know it until I moved up north.
Widely cultivated in Europe, especially around the Mediterranean, chard is sometimes known as Swiss chard, but has nothing to do with the famously neutral nation. Rather, the history seems to be that French seed catalogs added the name Swiss to distinguish this plant from cardoons, which bore the same name. And that’s even more confusing because cardoons are a type of artichoke and chard isn’t kin to artichokes, but is a cousin of beets.
Chard crossed the pond thanks to American colonists who considered it a type of beet grown specifically for its greens. A beetless green, if you will.
Whatever its name and origins, chard is earthy, sweet and downright pretty to behold. Its large dark green leaves are deeply veined with red, white or even yellow, depending on the variety.
And those stems. They’re larger than kale stems, but unlike kale whose stems are stubbornly tough, chard stems will grow tender when cooked — so don’t throw them away.
You can use chard in any recipe that calls for spinach or kale — soups, casseroles or sautes. In Europe, cooks often play up its sweet nature by adding raisins.
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Here are some of my favorite ways to enjoy chard. I hope you’ll add this pretty vegetable to your dinner table soon.
Sauteed Chard, Sicilian Style
Raisins add a sweet counterpoint to the garlic and the crushed red pepper adds a bit of life. This dish comes together quickly and is perfect for a week night dinner. Serve this alongside your main course, or toss with hot pasta.
1 bunch chard, leaves only
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small shallot, finely minced
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
Pinch of crushed red pepper, optional
Handful of raisins, black or golden
Salt to taste
A few tablespoons of water or chicken or vegetable broth
Drizzle of lemon juice, optional
Rinse greens well and chop into thin pieces. Set aside.
In a skillet over medium-high heat, saute shallot, garlic and crushed red pepper until tender. Add greens and toss to coat leaves with olive oil. Add a good pinch of salt. Lower heat to medium and continue tossing for about 5 minutes, taking care that garlic doesn’t burn. Greens will wilt and reduce. Turn heat to lowest setting. Cover pan with a lid and let the greens steam until tender, about 10 minutes. If at any point, they seem to be drying out, add one or two tablespoons of water or broth and cover with lid. Remove pan from heat, uncover and salt once more to taste. Add a drizzle of lemon juice just before serving, if desired.
Lasagne with Chard, Ricotta and Walnuts
This can be made all year round, but is especially nice in fall, or in late summer when those first cool nights arrive. This makes fantastic leftovers, if you are lucky enough to have them.
1 cup walnuts, toasted and finely chopped
2 bunches chard, stems removed
2 tablespoons olive oil or butter, plus extra for the dish
1 shallot, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup white wine
1 cup ricotta
1 cup grated Parmesan
Two 4-ounce balls of fresh mozzarella (total needed is 8 ounces), grated using the large holes of a box grater
1 1/4 cup whole milk
8 ounces lasagna noodles
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Bring water to boil in a large saucepan. Cook the chard until tender, about 5 minutes. Remove chard to a colander, pressing out most of the water. Reserve about 1/3 cup of the cooking water. Finely chop the chard.
In a skillet, sauté shallot and 2 cloves of garlic in olive oil until tender. Add chard and cook for 2 minutes, then add wine and let it evaporate. Remove from heat.
In a large bowl, combine the ricotta, 6 ounces of mozzarella and remaining clove of garlic. Add 1/3 cup of the chard water, then add chard mixture. Mix well and season with salt and pepper to taste.
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Oil or butter a 9 x 13 baking pan. Drizzle 1/3 cup of milk into the dish. Add 3 sheets of uncooked lasagna to the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup of milk, 1/3 of the cheese-chard mixture and 1/4 cup of walnuts. Do this two more times. For the final layer of noodles, add the remaining milk, mozzarella and walnuts.
Using toothpicks to make a tent, cover with aluminum foil. Bake for 25 minutes, then remove foil and bake about 10 more minutes or until lightly browned on top.
Let it rest a few minutes before serving.
Source: Adapted from Deborah Madison
Most traditional gratin recipes call for a blanket of béchamel sauce. This recipe requires no extra steps as everything is mixed together and thickens as it bakes. Be sure to add the nutmeg that’s called for as it really completes the dish. Believe it or not, the cheese is optional, but I love a little Swiss cheese with my Swiss chard.
3 bunches chard, washed with stems removed and sliced about 1/2 inch thick
2 cups breadcrumbs, freshly made
5 tablespoons olive oil or butter
1 large onion, diced
4 teaspoon flour
1 cup milk
Freshly grated nutmeg, one good pinch
1 cup Emmental, Gruyere or Swiss cheese, grated
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Cook the chard stems in a large saucepan of salted water. After two minutes, add the chard leaves and cook about 5 minutes longer. Drain and cool. Squeeze out the excess liquid and roughly chop the leaves.
Toss the breadcrumbs with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and toss until the oil is incorporated. Add the shredded cheese and toss again.
Sauté the onion in remaining 2 tablespoons of oil or butter until it is translucent. Then stir in the chard. Cook for 3 minutes, then sprinkle flour over the chard and stir well to coat. Add the milk and nutmeg, then bring to a boil. (If you’re using ground nutmeg, add about 1/8 teaspoon.)
Simmer for about 5 minutes to let the mixture thicken. Taste and add salt as needed.
Spread the chard mixture in a buttered baking dish. Top with breadcrumbs. Bake at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes. The gratin should be bubbling and the breadcrumbs will turn golden brown. Allow to cool for a few minutes, then serve.
Source: Adapted from Alice Waters