We’re eating chard (Beta vulgaris cicla) faster than it’s growing in my garden, despite the fact that I have two staggered plantings. It’s so pretty that I hate to cut it, but it’s so delicious that I can’t help myself.
Chard is a vegetable in the genus Beta, and like beets, there are multiple little seeds within what looks like a big, bumpy seed. When you plant one of those big seeds, you will get up to five plants growing from it. They will need to be thinned. Seeds will last five years or longer if the seed packets are kept cool and dry.
Chard, beet greens and spinach are similar. Wild beets (Beta vulgaris maritima) grow along the coasts of W. Europe, N. Africa and Asia. They were primarily domesticated for their leafy tops. Romans developed a variety of beet with large red roots in the early Christian period, which were referred to as Roman Beets during the late Middle ages.
Chard grew in the fabled hanging gardens of Babylon and was cultivated by early Greeks. During their military exploits, Romans introduced chard to central and northern Europe. Chard spread to the Far East in the Middle Ages and was in China by the 17th century.
Spinach (Spinacia oleracea), a close relative to chard and beets in the family Chenopodiaceae, migrated in the opposite direction in comparison to beets and chard. Spinach was domesticated in southeast Asia, and made its way to Europe during the Middle Ages. Early colonists brought spinach to the New World. But enough plant history. Back to the present day.
During a heat wave this summer, a couple of my chard plants went to seed. As I am the world’s laziest gardener, I ignored the two plants that bolted and let the seeds mature and fall where they may. The result is that patch of overcrowded seedlings above. I’ll harvest them for use in salads as microgreens. I really don’t want to save the seeds from those plants, as they weren’t my best chard. But the microgreens will be tasty in a salad for Thanksgiving dinner.
My favorite variety of chard is rhubarb chard, which I think has an unfortunate name. Actual rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) leaves are poisonous because they contain too much oxalic acid to be edible. We only eat the stems of rhubarb, and avoid the leaves. Rhubarb chard is another story. I think that there is a movement afoot to call it ruby chard, and that’s a good move.
But both the stems and leaves of rhubarb/ruby chard and all other chards are edible. The leaves of chard are used like spinach, while the stems can be cooked like celery. If I’m making a stir-fry with chard, I add the chopped stems to the skillet along with the onions and garlic, then add the sliced leaves near the end of cooking. The leaves only need to be cooked enough to wilt them. Young leaves don’t need to be cooked at all and can go straight into a salad.
My second favorite variety of chard is rainbow chard. The leaves seem to be a bit more tender than those of rhubarb/ruby chard, and the colors are gorgeous in the garden. But I’m partial to the deep red and burgandy of rhubarb chard.
Two other varieties that I’ll be planting soon are Lucullus shown on the left above, and Fordhook Giant, an heirloom variety from Botanical Interests. Note that the seeds from Botanical Interests are organic. I look for organic seeds whenever I can find them, because whereever those seeds were grown, the insects were safe, and the soil was being managed properly with addition of compost instead of chemicals.
Last night, we had chard cooked Sicilian style, one of my favorite ways of cooking it. I chopped half a red onion and sauteed it in olive oil along with some crushed garlic. If I’m using the stems, I add them at this step. After the onions are translucent, I add the chard leaves, which I had sliced crosswise into half inch slices. I put the lid on the skillet and sauteed until the leaves were wilted. Salt and pepper if you wish, and/or add a dash of crushed red peppers. Add a splash of good vinegar (I used basalmic vinegar last night, but sometimes I’ll use pear chardonnay or citrus champagne vinegar), stir, cover, and steam for another couple of minutes. Serve with shaved or shredded Parmesan cheese on top. Delicious!