I love greens. Greens in all forms. Salad greens, for sure, but what I’m talking about here are sturdier greens that lend themselves well to cooking, from quick stir-fries to long-cooked, Southern-style braised greens. (Although I should note that the French make delectably delicate soups utilizing cooked lettuce.)
My all-time favorite remains spinach, largely because of my grandmother’s German recipe, which is essentially a creamless creamed spinach. It uses the spinach cooking water for the sauce. The recipe can be found on Illinois Times website in my Jan. 14, 2010 column, “Feasts and food rules.”
A close second, though, is chard. It’s usually called Swiss chard, but after 25 years, Elizabeth Schneider, author of Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, says she’s never found a reason for the “Swiss” designation. Incidentally, the book is appropriately subtitled The Essential Reference. That’s not hyperbole; it’s worthwhile for cooks of all stripes.
Chard is a member of the beet family, Beta vulgaris, that’s cultivated for its broad leaves and fleshy stems rather than its roots. In some countries, it’s known as “silver beet;” early varieties’ stems were usually white. In America, the leaves stripped of their stalks are often used sometimes in combination with the stalks. In Europe, stalks alone are most often prepared. The leaves and stalks have different cooking times; if used together, they should be cooked separately.
These days, chard can also be found with red stalks, and the wonderfully tasty, incredibly gorgeous Bright Lights, whose stalks range from white to bright pink, yellow, red, orange. Bright Lights was developed in New Zealand and is so beautiful that it’s routinely used in decorative plantings, including flower beds in the middle of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile.
As noted in last week’s column, many greens are at their best in cool fall weather. That’s true of chard, but it’s also one of the few greens that’s delicious throughout the growing season, even during summer’s hottest temperatures. Harvesting the outer large leaves lets the younger inner leaves (they can be used raw for salads) develop. A few chard plants can provide a family with greens from late spring until the first hard freeze.
The thing I miss most when I’m trying to limit carbohydrates is pasta. Not sweets, not bread, but pasta in all its glorious variations. I initially devised the following recipe to satisfy my pasta craving, but it’s delicious enough to stand on its own merits. The combination of green chard, red tomato sauce and white cheese is more visually appealing than pasta versions. The filling of chicken and mushrooms is delectable, but other possibilities abound: ricotta or shrimp substituted for the chicken, all mushroom, meat mixtures similar to those used in ravioli (a great way to use leftover roast or grilled meats), or vegetables such as sautéed peppers, onions and summer squashes alone or with chèvre. Mexican or Cajun seasonings added to the filling and tomato sauce topped with appropriate melting cheese(s) create still more possible variations.
Chard “cannelloni” with chicken and mushrooms
- 12 large leaves Swiss chard
- 4 T. olive oil, divided
- 12 oz. white (button) or cremini mushrooms, quartered
- 2 c. chopped cooked chicken
- 1 tsp. minced garlic, or to taste
- 1/2 c. chopped parsley, preferably flat leafed
- 1/2 c. freshly grated parmesan or aged Asiago
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1/2 tsp. nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- Tomato sauce
- Fresh mozzarella, optional
Cut the thick stems carefully out of the chard leaves about halfway up, keeping the leaves as intact as possible. Reserve the stems. In a large pot of boiling water, blanch the leaves just until wilted (30 seconds to 1 minute), then place in a strainer under cold running water until cool.
Finely chop enough of the chard stems to measure 1 1/2 cups. Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat, add the stems and sauté until tender, about 5 minutes. Place in a large bowl and reserve.
Wipe out the skillet and add the remaining oil. Place over high heat and when hot but not smoking, add the sliced mushrooms. Sprinkle lightly with salt and sauté over high heat, for 5-8 minutes, stirring constantly until the mushrooms are well browned and cooked through. It is important not to crowd the pan so that the mushrooms do not “stew.” You may need to do this in two batches. When the mushrooms are done, remove to a plate and let cool to room temperature, then coarsely chop.
While the mushrooms are cooling, add the chicken, garlic, parsley, cheese, eggs and nutmeg to the bowl with the chard stems. Add the chopped mushrooms and mix well. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed. Divide the filling into 12 portions, each approximately 1/3 to 1/2 cup.
Heat the oven to 350 F. Blot the chard leaves with a lint-free towel. Lay one of the leaves on a flat surface with the stem end closest to you. Place the edges of the leaves where the stem was cut out so that they overlap. Put a portion of the filling on the lower third of the leaf and form into a log shape, leaving about 2 inches clear on the bottom and either side. Fold the bottom of the leaf up over the filling, fold the sides in, and then roll away from you to form a neat package. Repeat with the remaining leaves and filling.
In a large baking dish, place a layer of tomato sauce about 1/2-inch deep. Place the rolls on top of the sauce in one layer. Top with shredded mozzarella if desired. Cover the dish with a lid or foil and bake until bubbly and heated through, about 30 minutes. Serve immediately. Makes 12 “cannelloni.”
These little two-bite beauties may look elaborate, but they’re actually easy to make. Traditional beggar’s purses are prepared with crêpes and tied with blanched chives; I’ve again substituted chard. The original name is tongue-in-cheek: classic beggar’s purses are filled with caviar. I created my chard versions with seafood, but, as with the “cannelloni” a variety of fillings are possible – even caviar, if you’d like.
Chard beggar’s purses with crab or shrimp
- Approximately 1 bunch of large leaved chard
- 1 c. crabmeat, picked over to remove any shell or cartilage or coarsely chopped cooked shrimp
- 1/4 c. good quality mayonnaise such as Hellman’s
- 2-4 T. chili sauce or catsup
Strip the rest of the leaves from several of the ribs (the yellow and white will look best) and set the ribs aside. Reserve the trimmed leaves for another use if desired.
Wash the chard circles and place them with their liquid in a skillet over medium-high heat. Cook just until wilted. Remove from the skillet and drain on a towel.
With a vegetable peeler, shave the chard stems lengthwise into strips as long as possible. Make 16 strips plus a few extra in case of breakage. Add a little water to the skillet, place over medium-high heat and cook a few minutes until the strips are tender and pliable, adding more water so that it doesn’t completely evaporate. Drain and cool the strips. In a bowl, mix the chili sauce and mayonnaise until combined and then gently stir in the crab. Lay a chard circle on a flat surface and place a tablespoon of the crabmeat mixture in the center. Draw up the sides and pinch to form a “neck.” Gently tie with a strip of the cooked chard rib, then trim the strip’s ends.
Repeat with the remaining circles. Serve at room temperature. Makes 16.
Contact Julianne Glatz at email@example.com.