When it comes to leafy greens, nothing can compete with chard. Cooked chard has a slightly meatier taste than spinach, and doesn’t give the funny mouth feel one gets from cooked spinach. The stems can be used for texture and crunch, or eaten alone like celery. I especially love Fordhook Giant for both flavor and texture, but try planting Bright Lights for all the different colors. I brought a bunch of multicolored chard to work to give a friend one day, and another co-worker who had never heard of it asked me how I dyed the stems all those bright colors. If you work with me, I’ve probably tried to give you some chard.
Chard is beautiful. Spinach is homely and always bolts. It seems almost impossible to maintain a decent supply of spinach. I have to grow spinach only as a salad crop, do successional sowing if I want more than one lame harvest, then watch it like a maniac so I can pick it at just the right moment. I don’t really have the free time to babysit the spinach like this. Chard isn’t so demanding. As a biennial, it will not bolt the first season, and can be treated as an annual by planting new seeds once a year. You can harvest it as often as you please and it keeps making leaves. If you fail to harvest, the leaves just get bigger and meatier. It is now December, there is light snow falling, and my chard is still alive in the garden. What a trooper chard is.
Chard grows all season long, compared to spinach which can’t take the heat of midsummer, and kale that also needs more cold weather. Many greens in the mustard family are supposed to do well all season long, but I’ve had problems with intense bitterness if I didn’t catch them while the leaves were young and tender. Old arugula is one foul bastard, but I kept working with it last year and making salads which I can only describe as “challenging.” Chard doesn’t care how long you let it sit in the garden. It tastes just as good young as it does old.
The flaw of chard is it really isn’t very good in a salad all on its own. I will admit that. But if you use the smallest new leaves you can pick, use at least 50% lettuces, your salad will be immensely beautiful with bright yellow, burgundy, and orange veining in the leaves. It makes a lovely plate. Add a strong cheese like feta or Gorgonzola that can stand up to the texture of the chard and avoid leaves with big stems. Add some onion and your vinaigrette. Perfect.
Since chard is so easy to grow and seems to have no pests I’ve ever come across, I am bewildered that it’s hard to find in the grocery store. With all the terrifying genetic engineering to make crops pest and chemical resistant, you’d think chard was Monsanto’s wet dream. But no. When I learned a vegetarian friend of mine had never eaten it last year after my own crop was done, I had to search to find it at the store. Luckily, I found some to bring her, and extolled its virtues. She grew it in her garden this year and shared her seeds with another chard newbie. More chard converts!
Am I on a mission? Yes, make no mistake, if you grow one crop, let it be chard. It’s so easy, and so rewarding. If you think you don’t like leafy greens, think about this:
Take a nice big bunch of chard with stems included and chop it as small as you can within reason. This is not a smooth pesto, so don’t fret about some chunks. Cook it in garlic and as much olive oil as you wish, a good three tablespoons to half a cup, and then when it is cooked through and about half the size you started with, turn off the heat and add chopped pecans and Parmesan cheese. Serve over pasta or bruchetta, or for low carbohydrates make a little boat of half a tomato or get a nice pepper and stuff it.
Too much work? You want a super easy side dish? Okay, get another big bunch of chard with the stems and chop it more coarsely. Nothing fancy. Turn on the heat and put a whole tin of anchovies with their oil in your dutch oven, add the chard, sprinkle with salt, and stop cooking when the chard is wilted down by about half. Don’t tell anyone about the anchovies or else they won’t eat it. The anchovies will dissolve into the sauce, and you will harm no one. (Do be honest with your strictest vegetarian friends, of course.) This works beautifully with a fish entrée and some roasted potatoes.
Throw some in your stir fry. No problem. There’s so much you can do with chard. It has never failed me yet.
Last night I was thinking about chard and wondering if I could use it like seaweed to wrap some sort of Mediterranean sushi rolls, or perhaps traditional sushi rolls with ingredients grown in my backyard. The idea is not fully formed, but the meatiness of wakame is similar to chard, and I think perhaps with a little steaming or a quick blanching I could make an interesting Sushi-ish Thing. I’ll have to work on this and get back to you. In the meantime, try some chard if you have never tasted it, and plant it in the spring!