I never understood while growing up how people could possibly hate Brussels sprouts. Nor could I fathom why some people couldn’t stomach greens – especially the more pungent varieties such as mustard, dandelion and chard. For me, the world of bitter plants and multiflavored vegetables was like a constant paradise to explore – not just a required nutritional additive. But I also think this is because I was interested in food early on and inquired through books and learning on how to prepare, cook and eat these things within a generation of kids whose parents made huge technical errors in the cooking of said things. I recall many dinners at the homes of my peers where all the life was boiled out of vegetables in a pot of salted water before they ever hit the supper plate. Or where greens were steamed into lifeless piles of mush to pour over intensely mashed potatoes like some hot puree that would mingle enough to lose its identity completely. We also learn early on, perhaps erroneously, that all things that taste bitter are too good for you to be tasty. We even call an herbal preparation that triggers a cascade of healing properties to the system a “bitter vetch”. But the truth is, in the real world, grown ups like their greens, especially when prepared properly.
The latest object of my obsession from the garden is the fuchsia-stalked Swiss chard that grows abundantly this time of year with wide and smooth, curly-edged forest green leaves. Yes, it carries a bitter flavor. But I have discovered some new ways to incorporate this into dishes that not only disguise its sometimes off-putting flavor without sucking the vitamins or life out of it but also make it taste mighty good.
Swiss chard is excellent for making small side salads for dinner but the trick to taming the astringent taste (which is the very thing that equates with the fact that you are getting a myriad of amazing nutrients for your body) is four fold. One, you need to cut the leaves off the stalks and use only the green parts. Two, you need to chop the green leaves into a fine shred which creates more open breathing of the pores that release the tightly condensed bitter accents. Three, you need to marinate the leaves for at least twenty minutes in a lightly applied dressing that counteracts the bitter and blends all the flavors together into a nice mesh. A spritz of fresh lemon does the trick remarkably mixed with a bit of buttery and mellow oil like avocado or pistachio, rather than olive. Once that foundation is laid you can have fun finding things to throw in that are also opposing to the bitter flavor or accentuating of, such as dried cranberries and/or crushed wasabi-encrusted almonds.
The fibrous center stalks of the chard can be treated like celery. Inspired by the Cute Gardener, I have learned to cut them up finely and throw into a pan with some butter and garlic, onion or shallots until they soften. This then can become a base for a myriad of things from sauces to stocks. I have been using this application recently for a bevy of vegetable medleys that I then throw on top of pasta for a quick meal. In my most recent version, I mixed the tender sautéed stalks with roasted butternut squash hot from the oven, sunflower seeds, butter and mascarpone cheese before piling it all on top a bowl of spiral noodles.
I think next I may get a little ambitious with the abundant and overflowing chard and try to make my own version of the famous New Orleans dish Gumbo Z’Herbes.