Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Swiss chard, despite its name, isn’t from Switzerland. Its wild ancestor came from the Mediterranean and Asia Minor. Although it looks like overgrown spinach, it’s actually related to beets. Indeed, in Israel, where I first became acquainted with it, the greens are called beet leaves.

In English, chard is called Swiss because a 16th-century Swiss botanist first described yellow chard. Once exotic to North Americans, chard is now readily available in our markets. Yet many supermarket shoppers skip this vegetable, undoubtedly because they don’t realize how valuable it is.

First and foremost, chard tastes great. Compared with other greens, chard is easy to love because the flavor is mild and delicate, with a touch of sweetness in the red-stemmed variety. The texture is also pleasing, with a bit of crispness in the leaves.

Chard is beautiful, too. Its glossy dark green leaves are sometimes crinkly and sometimes smooth. The most common kind has white stems, but a few years ago, I discovered in seed catalogs a colorful type called rainbow chard, with yellow and red stems in addition to the usual white. Now you don’t have to garden to enjoy this pretty variety. It enlivens the produce bins of well-stocked supermarkets.

Chard’s big leaves might seem intimidating, but cooks quickly find the size to their advantage. With fewer leaves to rinse, chard demands much less preparation time than the same amount of spinach. Yet chard cooks nearly as quickly as spinach, unlike other greens such as collards.

Very young chard leaves can even be served raw and are sometimes included in baby lettuce mixes.

In regions where chard is indigenous, cooks take advantage of it in seemingly countless ways. The large leaves are used as wraps to enclose fillings. A favorite Lebanese stuffing is composed of rice, chickpeas and tomatoes enriched with olive oil. The stuffed chard is then served cold. Sephardic (Mediterranean) Jews enclose beef fillings in the leaves and serve them hot. The idea of wrapping food in chard leaves is also popular in Mexico, where the leaves envelop tamale mixtures the same way corn husks and banana leaves do.

Around the Mediterranean, chard is also popular for pie fillings. I love rich phyllo pastries filled with chard and cheese, such as the Turkish-style boreks with Swiss chard, walnuts and feta prepared by Ozcan Ozan, author of “Sultan’s Kitchen: A Turkish Cookbook” (Periplus). In “Mediterranean Street Food” (HarperCollins), Anissa Helou presents a tasty Genoese chard pie with ricotta cheese and sauteed onions.

Cooks in Provence, France, even serve chard in dessert tarts. In Nice, I enjoyed the delicious cuisine at an old favorite restaurant, La Mere Besson, where I sampled the local chard tart with grated cheese, rum-soaked raisins, pine nuts, bananas and apples. It’s quite startling at first, but it grows on you.

Greeks like sweet and savory chard creations, too, according to Diane Kochilas, author of “The Glorious Foods of Greece” (Morrow). She describes a Lenten sweet pastry crescent made with olive oil and filled with chard, rice, walnuts, raisins, honey, cinnamon and cloves.

For everyday meals, cooks opt for less elaborate recipes. A favorite southern French casserole is a gratin in which the chard is mixed with rice, garlic, eggs and grated Gruyere or Parmesan cheese and baked. Sephardic Jews make a similar casserole using bread crumbs or potato puree instead of rice, flavoring the chard with feta and sharp-tasting kashkaval cheese.

Egyptian cooks have developed a special technique for chard. They saute it with garlic and coriander, mash it, and add it like pesto to stews at the last minute to brighten the flavors. For a healthful, tasty dish, they add the garlicky chard to a medley of fava beans and rice flavored with fresh dill and cilantro.

Chard can have thin stems, but some varieties have wide stems that resemble flat celery ribs. Mediterranean chefs often treat such chard as two vegetables, cooking the stems like celery and the leaves like spinach.

A delicious Lebanese appetizer features mashed cooked chard stems enriched with tahini sauce. Another calls for mixing the pureed chard with labneh, a thick, strained yogurt, and sprinkling the dip with dried mint.

The Roman way with chard is wonderfully simple, writes Suzanne Dunaway in “Rome, at Home” (Broadway). Romans saute chard with olive oil, garlic and dried hot peppers and, for an intense flavor, continue cooking the already-tender greens until most of the moisture has evaporated and the chard is crisp and slightly browned all over.

From my Moroccan relatives, I learned to make a similar dish, which features cumin and lemon juice in addition to the garlic.

There’s another good reason to include chard in your menus: It’s a nutrition powerhouse. Steven Pratt, author, with Kathy Matthews, of “SuperFoods Rx: Fourteen Foods That Will Change Your Life” (Morrow), says chard is nutritionally similar to spinach and broccoli. Low in calories, chard is also rich in beta carotene and vitamin C.

Curried chickpeas with chard and zucchini

Chard and chickpeas is a favorite Middle Eastern combination in soups and stews. The dish is sometimes seasoned with just salt and pepper, sometimes heightened with a few spices. Serve this dish as a hot entree with bulgur wheat, rice or fresh pita bread; as a cold salad with a squeeze of lemon juice; or as a partner for lamb, beef or chicken. Aleppo pepper is available at Middle Eastern markets and some supermarkets.

1 12-ounce bunch chard, leaves rinsed, stems reserved separately

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 large onion, chopped

2 large garlic cloves, chopped

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon turmeric

3 cups cooked chickpeas (garbanzo beans), or 2 15-ounce cans, drained

1/3 cup vegetable broth or water, optional

½ pound zucchini, halved and sliced ½ inch thick

Salt and freshly ground pepper

½ to 1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper, or a pinch of cayenne pepper

Rinse chard well; soak it in a large bowl of cold water if it is sandy. Cut stems in ½-inch slices. Coarsely chop leaves. In a medium saucepan of boiling water, cook chard stems over medium heat for 2 minutes. Drain chard, reserving 1/3 cup of the cooking liquid.

Heat 1 to 2 tablespoons oil in a large saucepan. Add onion and saute over medium heat for 7 minutes or until golden. Add garlic, coriander, cumin and turmeric, and saute 1/2 minute. Stir in chickpeas and 1/3 cup chard cooking liquid or vegetable broth or water. Add zucchini and bring to a boil.

With pan on low heat, add chard leaves in 3 batches, covering briefly after each addition so chard wilts. After adding all of chard, simmer uncovered for 3 minutes or until zucchini is tender. Add chard stems; heat through. Season to taste with salt, pepper and Aleppo or cayenne pepper. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Moroccan red chard with garlic

You can use green chard here, but this dish is prettiest if you use the red variety, to have a colorful appetizer of red stems and green leaves. It’s also delicious as an accompaniment for fish, chicken or a vegetarian bean dish.

1 12-ounce bunch red chard

1 tablespoon olive oil

3 large garlic cloves, chopped

½ teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon ground paprika

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Cayenne pepper, optional

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Pull chard leaves from stems, and keep each in a separate pile. Rinse chard well, and soak it in a large bowl of cold water if it is sandy. Cut stems in ½-inch pieces. Coarsely chop leaves.

In a medium saucepan of boiling water, cook chard stems over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add leaves; cook 3 minutes or until tender. Drain chard, reserving a few tablespoons of the cooking liquid.

Heat oil in the saucepan, then add garlic and saute over low heat for about 30 seconds. Add chard; heat about 3 minutes, sprinkling in a bit of chard cooking liquid if it starts to dry out. Add cumin, paprika, and salt and pepper to taste. Add cayenne to taste, if desired, and heat about 1 minute. Just before serving, add lemon juice and heat through. Taste and adjust seasonings. Makes 2 to 4 servings.


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