Chard: Vegetable of The Apocalypse

rainbow chard 7-11

“When the zombie apocalypse happens, don’t let me forget my chard seeds!”

 My husband just raised his eyebrows and said, “It’s still growing out there?”

 “It’s March, and the chard is already up!  Now I feel bad, because I was going to put potatoes there.”

Don’t worry… I can still plant potatoes there and grow more chard somewhere else.  I have to rotate my crops anyway.  It’s not like chard is difficult to grow.

Two years ago, as I prepared to order seeds, I stumbled upon a blog post called, “How to Grow Your Own Swiss Chard from Seed & Why You Should.”

The author of this blog narrates her 30th birthday, where she asked two friends in their 60s, “Save me some trouble, and tell me the most valuable thing you’ve learned in the last 30 years.”  The first friend told her to be happy, not resentful, when good things happen to other people.  The other friend told her, “Always plant Swiss chard in the garden.”

Chard beside heirloom red swan beans
Chard beside heirloom red swan beans

Also known as silverbeet, white beet, leaf beet, and Roman kale (among other names,) Swiss chard is indeed in the beet family.  Unlike beets, chard is only grown for its leaves and stems.  Though the leaves are tougher than spinach, they’re not as tough as kale.  It tastes like a tangy, slightly sour spinach, and it pairs well with yogurts, lemon juice, goat cheese, and vinegar.

I remember my mom growing Swiss chard.  I think.  My husband certainly does.  He hated it.  His mom boiled it to an unpalatable mess.  I asked him if she ever prepared it differently, and he replied that she had only boiled it.  Going on the benefit of the doubt, I told him that I was going to plant Swiss chard, and he could either like it or not eat it.  (I told him the same thing this year regarding beets, after a similar conversation.)  At the end of last year, we both agreed: “Always plant Swiss chard in the garden.”

Why should you grow Swiss chard?

  • -It resists frost but also grows beautifully in hot weather
  • -The seeds have an extremely high germination rate
  • -You can grow it in a shallow container, or in a tiny garden space
  • -The seeds are cheap and easy to find
  • -Naturally colorful, it adds beauty to gardens and retains some color after cooking
  • -Most varieties are still heirlooms
  • -Chard requires very little maintenance
  • -You can plant it before your last frost of the spring
  • -It’s a “cut and come again” crop, meaning you can harvest from the same plant again and again.
  • -It’s bursting with vitamins K, A, C, and E, plus several B vitamins, magnesium, manganese, potassium, and dietary fiber
  • -It’s very versatile to cook with, and can be eaten raw, steamed or boiled, or in any dish that calls for spinach

How to Plant Chard

Heirloom chard seeds from Seed Savers Exchange
Heirloom chard seeds from Seed Savers Exchange

The soil needs to be 50 degrees for seeds to germinate, though it does not need to be past your last frost date.  You can either wait until the soil is regularly 50 degrees, or you can start seeds inside then transplant outside.

Some gardeners suggest soaking the seeds overnight in water.  I have never done this, and have had fabulous luck with seed germination.  Choose an area in full sun, though chard will tolerate some shade.  Sow the seeds about ½ inch deep, a few inches apart.  The seeds are large and easy to see, so spacing is not difficult.

Chard seedlings, just barely sprouted
Chard seedlings, just barely sprouted

When the seeds sprout, you will see multiple stems come up.  It may look like you planted two seeds in the same spot, but if all stems are the same color, they all belong to the same plant.  Thin the seedlings to about 6 inches apart, for best harvest results.  Keep the soil damp but not wet.  Mulch plants with compost or grass clippings to keep away weeds.

Chard at 1-2 inches tall
Chard at 1-2 inches tall. Yes, I need to thin this.

In the fall, your chard will withstand moderate frosts, though the cold temperatures will toughen the leaves and might even bring out some rosy color.  If you protect the chard with some plastic, you might be able to extend your crop past Thanksgiving.

How to Harvest Chard

Chard... and carrots, onions, zucchini, eggs... a tasty dinner.
Chard… and carrots, onions, zucchini, eggs… a tasty dinner.

When the plant is 6 inches tall, you can start harvesting leaves.  Just cut the leaves and stems off with scissors or a sharp knife, about an inch above the soil.  You can either cut the entire plant back, or you can trim off the outermost leaves and leave 2-3 of the tiniest leaves to regrow.  The beauty of chard?  Either way, it will grow back.  I like to remove just the outer leaves, because those little inner leaves catch the sunlight to photosynthesize, allowing quicker recovery for the plant.

Just an aside note: During July and August of 2012, I harvested chard every weekend.  Once, as my husband helped me in the garden, he asked, “Didn’t you just harvest chard?”  I replied, “Yep.  Isn’t it awesome?”

How to Cook Chard

Palak paneer, made with chard blanched and frozen over the summer then thawed for dinner in the winter
Palak paneer, made with chard blanched and frozen over the summer then thawed for dinner in the winter

The stems are tougher than the leaves, so be sure to cook them longer.  Otherwise, you’ll have tough, chewy, and stringy stems in your food.  Chop them into small pieces, all the way a little past the bottom edge of the leaf.  The stems take about as much time to cook as pieces of chopped onion do, so if you’re also cooking with onion, you can add these at the same time.  Add the leaves to the dish at the very end, with less than 5 minutes left to go in the recipe.

Ideas:

  • -Saute in butter and drizzle with a little balsamic dressing.  Sprinkle with crumbled chevre.
  • -Chop and add to broth-based soups.  Be sure to add the stems first and let cook a little before adding the leaves.
  • -Use the sautéed stems with rice, mushrooms, onions, almonds, and chopped basil, as a filling for stuffed bell peppers.
  • -Roll raw leaves up in inside sheets of puff pastry, with some ham, a mild white cheese, and diced shallots.
  • -Make a tangy quiche.  Saute up the stems with other vegetables, adding the leaves during the last few minutes.  Replace some of the milk or cream with plain yogurt.  Use a mild white cheese so the flavor does not compete with the tanginess.
  • -Chop the stems and sauté them with onions.  Then slice the leaves into thin ribbons.  Sprinkle both of these on a pizza before baking.  The leaves crisp up in the most delightful way!
  • -Substitute for spinach in any recipe that complements the added tanginess.  Indian food is especially good for this, because the yogurt, lemon juice, and/or ginger all pair very well with chard.  In fact, I’ve included my favorite way to cook chard at the bottom of this post!

How to Preserve Chard

Do not home-can chard unless you use a pressure cooker.  This is a very alkaline food, and will lower the acidity in a recipe to unsafe levels for waterbath preserving.  If you do home-can your chard, be sure to use a recipe approved by a major canning label.

Freezing chard is easy, though a little blanching is required.  I like to chop the stems first, and sauté them with onions, then bag them up separately.  I’ll pull these out of the freezer for soups, pizzas, quiches, etc.

To blanche the leaves, get a pot of water boiling.  Immerse the chard completely into the water, and allow it to boil for two minutes.  Remove the chard from the water with a spaghetti server and dunk immediately in ice water.  Don’t worry about ruining the leaves.  They can handle it.  Let the chard stay in the ice water until it is completely cooled.  Drain the chard in a colander until most of the water is off then pack in a freezer bag, pressing out all of the air.  Chard can stay good in a freezer for up to a year if blanched first.

Palak Paneer (originally from Manjula’s Kitchen)

Palak Paneer is creamy spinach with paneer (Indian homemade cheese). This is a very popular with youngsters and served in every Indian resturant. The creamy texture of spinach with paneer is a very good combination.

(Ames Family Farm note: I replace the spinach with equal amounts of swiss chard leaves, and the heavy cream with equal amounts of plain yogurt.  I chop the chard stems and add/sauté them right after the cumin.  Because my kids are gluten-free, I also replace the flour with an equal amount of gluten-free flour or baking mix.)

Serves 4.

Ingredients:

  • 1 10 oz package of chopped frozen spinach or 4 cups of fresh finely chopped spinach
  • 1/3 lb paneer
  • 2 medium tomatoes, pureed
  • 1 teaspoon chopped ginger
  • 1 teaspoon coriander powder (dhania)
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder (haldi)
  • 1/2 teaspoon red chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin seed (jeera)
  • Pinch of asafetida (hing)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • 2 tablespoons of whole wheat flour
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 tomato thinly sliced to garnish

Method:

  1. If using frozen spinach thaw and blend it just for a minute so spinach has a creamy texture but without becoming pasty.
  2. blend the tomatoes and ginger to make puree.
  3. Mix coriander, turmeric, and red chili with tomato puree and set aside.
  4. Mix whole-wheat flour with heavy cream and set aside.
  5. Cube the paneer in about half inch pieces and deep fry them on medium high heat just for few minutes so paneer become very light gold in color, take paneer out on paper towel so extra oil can be absorbed.
  6. Heat the oil in a saucepan. Test the heat by adding one cumin seed to the oil; if it cracks right away it is ready.
  7. Add hing and cumin seed. After cumin seeds crack, add the tomato puree mixture, and let it cook for a few minutes until the tomato puree is about half in volume.
  8. Add the spinach, and let it cook on low medium heat for about 10 minutes covered.
  9. Add heavy cream mixture and let this cook another four to five minutes.
  10. Add paneer and fold it gently with spinach and let it simmer for a 2-3 minutes. Pot should remain covered until the cooking is finished, otherwise the spinach will splatter.
  11. Transfer the spinach to a serving dish and spread the tomato slices over the top, and cover the dish so tomato slices get tender with the steam from the spinach.

Suggestion

You can replace the heavy cream with 1 1/2 cups of milk.

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