Chard, frequently called Swiss chard, is a lovely, colorful, leafy plant that is pretty easy to cultivate. I have heard my Mom complain that the chard she put in her sandy Florida garden did not thrive, so I may have lucked out with my compost and manure-enriched clay. The plants grow beautifully all summer long, and over the years I have even had a few of the golden-stemmed cultivar survive the winter to re-sprout in the spring. They will wilt a bit during a heatwave, so you may need to water them, but if the soil in your garden retains water fairly well, or you have applied mulch, they should grow nicely. If they look a little peaked, feed them some compost. Harvesting is quick and easy with a sharp pair of shears.
The best tip I have read for growing chard comes from Jimmy Williams, co-author of the book, From Seed to Skillet. He recalls his Grandmother cracking the “seeds” with a rolling pin to break them up, allowing for a quicker start. Those seeds are botanically classified as fruits, and they form in clusters, so breaking them apart allows them both to absorb water more quickly and to sprout independently of one another in the tray, thus preventing the inevitable loss of a few when you have to pry the tiny little plants apart later. A kitchen pounder will work just as effectively as a rolling pin, but, no matter your implement of crushage, put them in a bag or towel and press carefully or you may end up with flying fruit.
There are some excellent recipes in Domenica Marchetti’s book, The Glorious Vegetables of Italy, and the first I tried is a chard and tomato sauce served over polenta al forno. For those of us from the South, that’s baked cheese grits, and really, who doesn’t love grits? Leftovers are lovely, too, because the grits solidify in the fridge and you can pan-fry them to get a crisp texture on the outside with a creamy center. There are a lot of recipes out there on the interwebs if you can’t find the book at your local bookstore, but this sauce on her website is close, if you omit the meatballs. Add a few Italian cheeses to the grits or polenta, and you’re off to the races. If your harvest is much bigger than the amount called for in the recipe, double or triple the batch then put the sauce in the freezer for later.
I also made the chard gnudi from the same book, which is basically a filling for ravioli sans the pasta sheets, and they were really delicious. Miraculously, I managed to keep the delicate little things intact through the cooking process. We wanted a little more texture than these provided, not being fans of everything on the plate being soft, so I think I may try a filled pasta next time. There are several ideas out there that look wonderful, particularly the tortelli d’erbetta from Claudia on Pasta Grannies. Or Vilma’s calciunes. Or maybe Rina’s orecchioni with butter and sage… Are you reading or watching Pasta Grannies? It is wonderfully inspirational and still going strong. Be forewarned, if you enjoy making fresh pasta it is a bit of a rabbit hole, but in the best possible way.
Some recipes will instruct the cook to use the leaves and save the “stems” for another use. The stalks on a leaf are called petioles, and these authors nearly always fail to provide us with the mysterious “other” uses for them. That’s almost as annoying as recipes that have you make a quart of a complicated sauce so you can use two tablespoons in your dish and have the rest go bad in the fridge some time next week. Solution #1 is to mince the stems and throw them into the dish anyway. No harm done, and less food wasted.
Martha Rose Shulman comes to the rescue with solution #2 from her fantastic cookbook Mediterranean Harvest with a chard petiole and tahini dip, and the same recipe is available online at the NY Times. I will admit, it sounded a little odd to me, and I was not expecting a great deal from this recipe, but we inhaled the entire bowl full in one sitting. Think of it as “hummus” with chard instead of chickpeas. Delicious. And if you happen to have grown ruby chard, it will also be a lovely pink or fuchsia color. Give chard a try in your garden. Enjoy!