I can always spot them. So can you. And who are they? The cool kids. You know, they are the ones that everyone wants to hang out with; that everyone wants to have their picture taken with; the ones that hog all the front pages and win all the popularity contests. It just doesn’t seem fair. I mean, you grew up side by side in the vegetable patch, equally tall and proud and leafy; and then all of a sudden your chlorophyllous cousin gets discovered by some nutritionist talent scout on the lookout for the Next Big Vegetable and catapulted to the heights of superfood stardom. You, on the other hand, with your sparkling personality, neat handwriting and hidden nutritional assets, languish in obscurity, passed over by shoppers who are never quite sure what to do with you. It’s kale this and kale that, from soups to salads to smoothies (and of course the ubiquitous kale chips), and it is touted to cure everything ailment from acne to zygomycosis (trust me you don’t want to Wikipedia this….). But why do we overlook chard?
Chard is a leafy vegetable a member of the beet family and also related to amaranth, another superfood whose seeds are often found ground up in a nutrient-rich but gluten-free flour. Nobody seems to know how long we have cultivated chard, but consensus seems to be that it is a Mediterranean plant and Greek philosopher Aristotle is said to have mentioned red-stalked chard as far back as 350 BC. Although it isn’t much used in in modern herbalism, chard (and the entire beet family) has a long history of medicinal use, especially in the treatment of tumours and ulcers. But medicinal uses aside, the rainbow variety of chard is a surprisingly pretty vegetable, with leaves ruffled like a Spanish dancer’s petticoats and stems that range in colour from pale white, to sunny yellow, to peony pink, to a deep blood red.
But there’s more! Chard is easier to grow organic than, say, spinach as it is more robust and more resistant to pests and diseases. Chard will provide leafy greens throughout summer long after other leafy greens have become bitter and inedible; and if winters are relatively mild, chard can provide greens through the winter (with a little protection). Chard fans are usually divided into those who eat the stems, and those who don’t as they can be a little stringy, but once chopped and sautéed till they soften, I find them both vividly colourful and delicious. When young, the leaves can be chopped raw into a salad but some find their taste too strong and prefer to steam or sautée them like spinach. Even the flowering stem can be steamed and eaten like broccoli. The even better news is that chard is massively nutritious: one cup of cooked leaves contains over 200% of your daily vitamin A requirements; over 50% of your vitamin C requirements; an astonishing 716% of your vitamin K requirements (more than kale!) as well as calcium (10%), iron (22%) and magnesium (38%). It is also rich in dietary fiber and (surprisingly) protein, and rainbow chard’s colourful pigments means it packs a punch in terms of anti-oxidant phytonutrients and polyphenol antioxidants (one of which – syringic acid – has the potential to control high blood sugar).
To paraphrase Dirty Dancing, nobody puts chard in a corner.
This chard comes from Nick’s allotment, and this recipe comes from the November 2012 edition of Sunset magazine - and I cannot say enough good things about it. The creamy polenta provides the satisfying comfort of carbohydrates; the rainbow chard provides an earthy leafiness with a less pronounced”iron-y” taste than spinach can sometimes have; and of course everything is better with bacon and Parmesan. It’s naturally gluten-free, and if you leave out the bacon it is also vegetarian – but more importantly, it’s comfort food of the highest order. So keep your kale smoothies – my money is on chard this year.
If, like me, you are a chard fan, then you might enjoy these recipes from other bloggers:
- Meeta’s baked eggs with spiced chickpeas and chard
- Katie’s chard and sunkiss tomato pesto
- Elise’s chard with cream and pasta
- Sylvie’s chard tart (gluten-free)
- Kalyn’s chard, mozzarella and feta egg bake
- Helen’s kale, chard, avocado & watermelon salad
- Kellie’s gardener’s green shakshuka
- 165g (1 cup) polenta
- 1 litre (4 cups) + 85ml (1/3 cup) cold water
- ½ tsp salt
- 75g (6oz) good quality bacon, chopped
- 2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
- 2 large shallots (chopped)
- 2 garlic cloves (minced)
- about 700g (1.5lbs) rainbow chard ribs (stems cut into 1cm pieces and leaves chopped into 1.5cm wide strips)
- ¼ tsp red chile flakes (more if you like it spicy!)
- 1 Tbsp butter
- 30g (1/3 cup) grated Parmesan cheese
- 2 tsp balsamic vinegar
- Bring the water to a boil over medium high heat and add the salt; then add the polenta in a steady stream while whisking continuously. Carry on whisking until the polenta starts to thicken, then cover, lower the heat and cook for 30-40 minutes, stirring vigorously every ten minutes or so to prevent sticking and lumps.
- In the meantime, cook the bacon in a large frying pan until crisp, then drain on paper towels.
- Discard the bacon fat from pan, then heat the oil in same pan over medium heat. Cook the shallots, garlic, and chard ribs in the oil until softened (should take 4-5 minutes), then stir in chard leaves, chile flakes, and ⅓ cup water. Cover the pan, reduce the heat to low, and cook until the leaves are wilted.
- Stir the butter and Parmesan cheese into the prepared polenta and spoon into shallow bowls. Add the vinegar to the chard pan and toss to coat, then spoon the chard over the polenta. Top each bowl with bacon bits and serve hot.