Imagine coming in from shoveling snow or defrosting animal water troughs on a bitter cold, winter day and the smell that lures you to the kitchen. On inspection, you see just another pot of vegetable soup simmering on the stove. But the flavor is like no vegetable soup you’ve ever tried.
Such was our experience this past year. And the secret ingredient? Swiss chard.
I planted Swiss chard for the first time last spring because I saw it in my friend’s garden and liked the pretty colors. I had no intentions of liking it.
However, my first attempt at serving chard for supper was an instant hit. The family devoured it. Much as I liked the flavor, though, I didn’t care for the texture. Being used to the firmness of kale or fried cabbage, I wasn’t prepared to eat a green that was, in my opinion, quite mushy. Therefore, chard was not set on the table again and I let it go wild in the garden. Then, my conscience started bothering me for wasting perfectly good food.
So, when I started canning soup, I threw in handfuls of chopped chard for the flavor. We didn’t know what the outcome would be until cold weather hit and we were in the mood for soup once again. But when that time came, we were pleasantly surprised. I had many quarts of soup on the shelf, all with different mixes of vegetables, and the jars with the chard in them disappeared first.
Varieties—Swiss Chard (beta vulgaris cicla), a relative of the beet, comes in many different varieties. The pretty colors I mentioned come from the Bright Lights or Rainbow. The intense pink, yellow, red, and orange stalks of this kind will brighten any garden. Named for the Roman general Lucius Lucullus, who was famous for his luxurious banquets, the Lucullus Swiss variety has white stalks with green leaves. Southern gardeners prefer this cultivar as it withstands the summer heat even more than the others. Ruby Red Chard has bright red stalks, red-veined leaves and has a sweet, tender flavor. It also has more vigor and disease resistance than other common strains.
Planting—Planted in the spring, just a few chard plants in the garden will provide plenty of greens through the fall. It can withstand light frost and mild summers. Sow chard seed in full sun to partial shade, spring or fall, ½ to ¾ inch deep. Thin to 12” to 16” apart. A one ounce packet of seed will produce about 100 feet of greens. The seeds will germinate between 7-10 days. You can harvest in 50-65. Swiss chard prefers rich, loamy, and moist but well-drained soil. A biennial, chard can be mulched over through the winter for the first greens in early spring.
Harvesting—For small, tender leaves, cut the plant down to about an inch when it reaches six inches tall. The chard will re-grow if harvested this way. If you want a tougher leaf, don’t cut the plant until the leaves get tall with stalks resembling celery.
Both the leaves and the stems of chard are delicious. You can cook the stalks with the green or use them as a substitute for celery. They taste great in salads or cooked dishes. In addition to soups, we’ve added it to stir-fry, pasta, and quiche. Our favorite, however, is pizza.
Chard will keep up to two weeks in the refrigerator. It also cans and freezes well.
Chard excels in nutritional content. The Vitamin K in one cup of cooked chard is greater than 300% of the recommended daily value. It also exceeds in Vitamins A and C, and the minerals, magnesium, manganese, potassium, and iron.
My mom used to say, “Don’t stick your nose up until you try it.” I say, “The colors will attract your attention. The flavor will keep it.”
Photo by Jeff Moser / BikeCarson.com