Off the Beaten Aisle: Rainbow Chard

By: J.M. Hirsch

It’s a beet, minus the root.

Which doesn’t make sense. Except it does. Because it’s chard, one of a growing number of common yet often overlooked greens lurking at your grocer.

Chard -- sometimes called Swiss chard or rainbow chard (when it sports brightly colored stalks) -- really is a relative of the beet.

But unlike traditional beets -- which put their energy into producing finger-staining roots, chard instead produces big, tender leaves and crunchy stalks.

Chard has been around for thousands of years and likely originated in the Mediterranean, where it was in heavy culinary rotation until spinach came along.

The taste depends on which part you eat, though not so much on which color. The large, firm leaves are mild, sweet, earthy and just slightly bitter; on the whole, it’s a bit milder than spinach.

The stalks -- which can be white, yellow, red, purple, pink, striped and so on -- resemble flat celery with a sweet taste slightly reminiscent of beets.

Why is it sometimes called Swiss chard? No one knows, but we do know it has nothing to do with Switzerland.

When shopping for chard, look for bright, firm leaves and stalks. Wrapped in plastic and refrigerated, it will keep for two to four days.

How do you use it? The simple explanation is to use the leaves as you would spinach, and use the stalks as you would asparagus.

But I tend to think that oversimplifies things. It also requires that you treat chard as two separate vegetables, the greens and the stalks.

I mean, I’m as OCD as the next guy, but there’s no way I’m separating my greens into two parts for different cooking. Who has that sort of time?

I prefer to roughly chop the leaves and finely chop the thicker stalks; this helps the two parts cook in about the same time. And I enjoy the contrast between the more tender leaves and the crunchier stalks.

Generally, any flavor that works well with spinach will partner with chard, including butter, lemon, cream, garlic, shallots and vinaigrette.

In fact, if you do nothing more than briefly steam or sauté chopped chard, then toss it with any (or any combination) of those, you’ll have a great side dish.

In Spain and Portugal, for example, chard is sautéed with olive oil, garlic, pine nuts and sometimes raisins, then dressed with lemon juice. Need more ideas?

•    Add chopped raw chard to salads, especially with a lemon-juice vinaigrette. Raw chard can have an assertive taste, so start with a little and see what you think.

•    Sauté chopped chard with diced onion, then use it as a filling in omelets or mixed into frittatas.

•    Mix finely chopped chard into your favorite turkey stuffing recipe.

•    Finely slice the leaves and stalks, then stir into chicken or white bean and pasta soups during the final few minutes of simmering.

•    Sauté chopped chard with onions and diced pancetta, bacon or prosciutto, then use the mixture as an amazing pizza topping.

•    Toss chopped chard with cooked pasta, red pepper flakes, olive oil, Parmesan cheese and salt and pepper. The residual heat of the cooked pasta will nicely wilt the chard.

Rainbow Chard, Bacon and Brie Quiche

The bacon also can be jettisoned (but why would you?). If you must, cooked chicken or sausage would be fine alternatives.

Start to finish: 40 minutes (20 minutes active)
Servings: 6
1 prepared uncooked pie crust
8 ounces bacon, cut into small chunks
1 small yellow onion, diced
6 cups chopped rainbow chard (about ½ bunch)
5 ounces brie, cut into small chunks
8 eggs
⅓ cup milk or fat-free half-and-half
2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

Heat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Unroll the pie crust and set into a pie pan, crimping and trimming as needed to form an even edge. Set aside.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, combine the bacon, onion and chard. Cook until the chard has wilted and released water, about 6 minutes.

Let the bacon mixture cool slightly, then use a slotted spoon to transfer it to the crust, arranging it in an even layer. Scatter the brie evenly over it.

In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, thyme, salt and pepper.

Pour the egg mixture into the tart shell, then bake for 25 minutes or until puffed and set at the center and lightly browned at the edges.

If the crust browns too quickly, use strips of foil to cover the edges.

Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 530 calories; 350 calories from fat (68 percent of total calories); 39 g fat (16 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 345 mg cholesterol; 22 g carbohydrate; 20 g protein; 1 g fiber; 930 mg sodium.

J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is author of the recent cookbook High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking . He also blogs at jmhirsch.

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