No one knows exactly why the leafy green is called “Swiss” chard, mainly by English speakers only. Other languages and peoples just call it “chard” or add that word to one of the colors it usually appears in: green, red (or crimson), white. We Americans invented the “rainbow” label for the range of pinks, magenta, oranges and yellows that Swiss chard can carry.
For white chard, the most commonly grown and oldest variety, the British often use a more precise color – celadon – a type of jade-tinted ivory.
Freshly harvested Swiss chard now finds its way into our regional farmers markets, although it is available year-round from other parts of the world.
The “Swiss” part of the name is odd because Swiss chard’s Latin name is Beta vulgaris var. cicla, the latter term is probably a reference to Sicily, as chard originates from the Mediterranean region and remains very popular as a food vegetable in the south of France, throughout Italy and on the many islands of the Sea. The inhabitants of the Balearic Islands turn the leaves into a bag filled with pine nuts and raisins, then steamed, a clear return to the Arab influence in the region.
As the Latin name suggests, it is a member of the beet family, although, unlike the beet, Swiss chard does not form an edible root. We eat only the beautiful leaves and sturdy stems (sometimes up to 60 cm long), considered by the ancient Mediterranean as a substitute for celery.
Since the Old Latin and Old French words for chard meant “thistle,” one scholar believes the “Swiss” prefix was used to unmistakably distinguish chard from thistle, a much spicier and not easily approachable, well, weed. (An edible version of thistle is grown and is called ‘cardoon’.) But again, why ‘Swiss’, no one seems to know or by whom.
Swiss chard is firmer than spinach and also less bitter. It shares the bitterness of oxalic acid with spinach (you know this acidity as the defining bitterness of rhubarb), but in Swiss chard, the acidity is tempered with greater sweetness.
Unless the chard leaf is very young and small, cooks all over the world have to prepare the leaves and stems separately, perhaps why so many don’t and just toss the stems. Swiss chard is called “the chicken of vegetables” because its two parts, such as the breast and thigh of the poultry, require different or different heat applications and it is difficult to cook simultaneously and together.
But the stems have more “chard-y” flavor than the leaves, so cook them too. Cleaned and cut, stem pieces need just a few minutes more heat (sometimes less). They also add a pleasant crunch. There’s no point in throwing it all away.
Baked chard leaves retain more texture than the same treatment of spinach; they soften tooth-like well before being disassembled. To make them silky smooth like raw, moist seaweed, cook them in a wet setting (in soups, or with soft-boiled eggs, or under a sauce) for a little longer than a quick sauté.
Swiss chard ribbons
Adapted from a recipe for Garlicky Swiss Chard in “Vegetables Illustrated” (America’s Test Kitchen, 2019). Serves 4-6 as a side dish or topping.
- 10-12 Swiss chard leaves, stems removed and chopped into 1/2-inch thick pieces, on the bias
- 4 tablespoons good quality extra virgin olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced or finely chopped
- Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (Mexican, Urfa, Aleppo, etc.)
- 2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar or 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Wash and shake off the excess water from the chard leaves thoroughly and remove the stems, either by pulling them gently as if you were tearing the spine off a book, or by cutting them on both sides to separate them from the leaves. Stack the leaf halves together and cut diagonally into 1-inch-wide strips.
In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan or Dutch oven, over medium heat, heat 2 tablespoons oil and, if shimmering, cook garlic until aromatic, about 90 seconds or slightly longer.
Stir in chard stalks, reduce heat to medium-low, cover and cook until tender but just so, about 5 minutes, stirring once or twice. Remove the stems and set aside on a warm plate. Add 1 more tablespoon of oil to the pan, then stir in the chard ribbons. Cook the ribbons while stirring and folded in half or with tongs for 3 minutes. (Add a splash of water or apple juice if it dries out.) Season generously with salt and black pepper.
Add the reserved stalks, red pepper flakes, remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and rice vinegar or lemon juice and toss to heat through. serve.
With paste: Cook portions of oblong pasta (bucatini, linguine) and garnish with portions of cooked Swiss chard.
With beans: Add 1 cup cooked white beans (Great Northern, cannellini) to the cooked Swiss chard before serving. Or add the beans and some stock to the cooked chard to make a thick vegetable soup.
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