My Spring Fling with Swiss Chard

Swiss chard is one of those vegetables that I keep meaning to try; it seems so interesting, with those colorful stems and strong green leaves. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a good-looking, seasonal organic vegetable.Swiss chardLately I’ve been checking it out at the farmer’s market and thinking “maybe, someday…” but always end up going home with my tried-and-true broccoli or beets.

It’s not that I’m afraid of new foods — not at all. In the past few weeks I’ve eaten sweetbreads (that’s right: BRAAAAINS!) and uni on a ‪chicharrón‬ (oh yes, I did!). I just wasn’t sure Swiss chard would be a good match. Would it be bitter or too earthy? Would the right cooking technique unlock a certain sweetness that wasn’t evident from its appearance? I was intrigued, but shy when it came to Swiss chard.

And then yesterday morning, guess what turned up on my doorstep, front and center in my CSA box? That’s right — helloooo, Swiss chard. How you doin’? Now that fate had finally brought us together, I’d have to come up with just the right recipe for our first meal. It should be something simple and casual that didn’t require a lot of prep, but let me get to know Swiss chard better. I Googled “swiss chard recipes,” and decided between the top three, all from my go-to recipe sites. A basic sauté seemed to be the way to go, and the instructions were awesomely simple:

  1. Separate the leaves from the stems, chopping the stems into bite-sized pieces and the leaves into approximately 1-inch ribbons.
  2. Heat 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a wide pan.
  3. Sauté the stems first for about five minutes, then add the leaves and sauté everything together for about five minutes more.
  4. Add a splash of acidity for brightness (vinegar, lemon juice, or white wine) and finish with salt and pepper to taste.

I’d make things a bit more interesting by adding maitake mushrooms, thinly sliced yellow onion, and a pinch of fresh thyme to the mix, serving the sauté over quick-scrambled eggs. Ok, I admit that I was giving myself a bit of insurance here. If things didn’t go well with Swiss chard, the evening wouldn’t be a total loss. I’d still have the rest of the dish to fall back on, meaning I’d at least have a decent dinner.

I prepped while enjoying a white wine aperitif, looking forward to the newness, the possibilities. Sure, I was starting with something basic, but if things went well, who knew? The future might hold more interesting dishes with Swiss chard as the main ingredient — maybe a pasta or something that I could serve at a dinner party for friends. Nope, wait. Let’s not get carried away. I tried to stay in the moment and focus on the prep, enjoying my drink and getting to know my new ingredient.

As it turns out, Swiss chard could hold its own with the heat; it didn’t wilt right away when it went into the pan. As I progressed from cooking to plating, I was feeling a bit of excitement. Things seemed to have gone well; the dish looked and smelled delicious. Admittedly, I was on the fence about the chard stems, which seemed a little stiff, despite extra cooking time.

Then came the moment of truth: that first bite. Hmm. Not exactly what I was expecting. The stems were still fibrous — and while softened a bit from the heat — not exactly delicious. I was underwhelmed. I took another bite. I tried a third bite, adding mushroom and onion. Ok, maybe some of the scrambled egg. Nope, nothing. I didn’t love the texture. There was no hint of hoped-for sweetness, just a slight earthy flavor. Not unpleasant, just… boring. Sigh. Eating those stem pieces started to feel like work. At least the rest of the dish was making me happy.

I wanted to like Swiss chard, I really did. It’s pretty, it’s seasonal, it’s locally grown, and it’s good for you. But the fibrous stems were a drag, and it seemed no amount of cooking might change that. I’d tested the stem pieces a couple of times during cooking, and the texture was the same, but I pushed forward thinking that I really needed to give it a chance. You know, that things would change once the whole dish was assembled. (This is what we call “ignoring a red flag.”) The leaves were decent, so that was something. They cooked down exactly as I’d expected and were a nice complement to the mushrooms, onions, and eggs.

A few more bites in, and I started thinking: “Maybe it’s me.” Maybe I did something wrong. Did I overcook it? Undercook it? How could that be? I’d done my due diligence, cross-referencing recipes and taste-testing my dish at a couple of different points during cooking. Maybe it was the recipe. I should try another recipe. Was it the wine? Maybe no wine next time. You know how that can sometimes change your perception of a dish.

Realizing that things were not turning out as I’d hoped with Swiss chard, I pushed the stems aside and focused on enjoying the rest of the dish. Well, I thought, that was disappointing. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with Swiss chard, but maybe it’s not for me. It’s like that part of the dinner date when you realize “hey, he’s a nice guy, but there’s just no spark.” Should you try again?

As I lay in bed that night, about to fall asleep, I was replaying the evening’s meal. I was stuck on the idea of what I might do differently, should I try Swiss chard again. Ever the optimist, I hadn’t exactly written it off. And then it hit me: “Why not?” I’d done my best. I’d looked up three different recipes from reliable sources and followed the instructions. I’d been careful in the cooking process, paying attention to what was going on with Swiss chard from prep to plating. The fact was: it just didn’t work for me. As much as I wanted to, I just couldn’t get past those fibrous, earthy stems — and trying again wasn’t going to make that different. Oh, I suppose I could just use Swiss chard for its leaves, but that doesn’t seem fair. Realistically, there are other vegetables out there that would be a better match for me. So, I tried it, and it wasn’t great. No harm, no foul. Sorry, Swiss chard, it looks like it’s just not gonna work out for us. It was fun to try, though.

Have you cooked swiss chard? How did it go? What do you think — should I give it another try?

0 thoughts on “My Spring Fling with Swiss Chard

  1. Anni, you had the right idea, but the stems are tough and need to be more finely chopped and sauteed until they are soft. The leaves take very little time. And I usually add some garlic and herbs. Saute in olive oil and butter. I am a chard convert!

    1. Thanks Kurt! Good to know that I was on the right track :-). I actually loved the way the leaves turned out (just as good as beet greens). Looks like I’ll have to give it another try.

  2. Here’s what I like to do: separate the stems from the leaves and slice very thinly (1/4″). Heat olive oil until it swimmers, sprinkle in a few red pepper flakes along with the stems, cover and braise for about 20 min until tender, stirring occasionally so they don’t burn. When the stems are done, add in the leaves, and a pinch of salt, cover and cook until leaves are also tender (about 10 minutes, maybe a little less). When almost done, add in a little balsamic vinegar and a small handful of golden raisins. Cover for a couple of minutes so the raisins plump up and enjoy! I like to serve alongside cheesy polenta smothered with sausage braised with onions and peppers.

    1. Jan — you might have just swayed me to try again :-)!! I did cook my stems longer than recommended in any of the recipes I used for inspiration — about 15-20 minutes, in fact. Wasn’t sure if chard stems could be overcooked, so clearly I backed off too soon. And I didn’t cover the pan, so maybe that would help. Mmmm, cheesy polenta . I’ll put this on my list for another go ’round. Thanks!!

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