Doing it the chard way: A leafy Italian-style dish straight from your garden

By Sarah Mohan, last updated 4/30/14 07:04am

Photo credit Sarah Mohan  

My neighbors, Gloria and Tony, loved the idea of gardening, but they just weren’t cut out for it. They had both grown up in the crowded tenements of Greenwich Village, children of paisanos who remembered the joys of the vegetable gardens from their childhoods in Italy. When Gloria’s parents came to live with them in Rockville, her father started a garden that evidently produced abundantly. But by the time we moved in next door, her parents were long gone, and Tony tried every year to grow vegetables, with no success. Everything they planted died; not only the vegetables, but trees and shrubs and flowers too.

One day I was chatting with them in their carport and a bee appeared. Tony grabbed a can of Raid and chased after the bee, spraying vigorously the whole time. I got sprayed too in the process. This was my first clue to the mystery of his black thumb. When I noticed that no weeds would grow in the plot he used for vegetables, my suspicions mounted.

I started my vegetable garden on the east side of the house right next to their yard. I’m a lazy gardener, but everything grows for me, including weeds. I always plant the same things – the things that grow easily and don’t suffer from pests or diseases: tomatoes, peppers, green beans, herbs, and Swiss chard. Unlike kale and collards, bugs don’t like Swiss chard, and I love greens, so I grow a big patch every year.

Well, when Gloria saw my chard, she coveted it! Evidently it’s a favorite in Italian cooking and she hadn’t had any in years. I told her to help herself. One day I went out to the garden and was more than a little dismayed to see that she’d cut the centers out of most of my chard plants! Later when she thanked me and told me how delicious their dinner was, she said, “I like it nice and tender – I just picked the small leaves.” I explained that it was fine to take the smaller leaves, but that she must leave the green growing centers or the plants would stop producing. This was a long time ago and the memory has faded, but I like to think I was very nice about it.
Luckily chard is easy to grow, so I started some more.

In the long run, my loss of a few plants was more than made up for, because Gloria shared her recipe for Italian-style Swiss chard:

“Take the tenderest leaves you can get. You really need a LOT because they cook down. Wash the chard and remove the stems. Put some olive oil in a big pot and throw in some whole garlic cloves, at least 12 or more. Heat the oil slowly and stir occasionally until the garlic is just beginning to brown. DO NOT LET IT BURN. Remove the garlic and put in the chard leaves, still wet from their washing. Put a cover on the pot and steam the chard until tender – maybe 5 minutes. You shouldn’t need any more water, but watch carefully and add a few drops if needed. Add salt and serve.”

I just couldn’t believe how delicious this was. I’ve modified the recipe a bit over the years though, because, well, I like to use the stems, and I’ve found that the older leaves are fine too if you cook them a bit longer. So, for a big bunch of chard, I use maybe 3 tablespoons of olive oil and maybe 6 garlic cloves. What can I say? I’m frugal! Experiment, see what you like. I like to thinly slice the garlic the long way and leave it in the dish. I trim off the leaves with a sharp knife and cut all the tender stems into 1 inch pieces. Throw away any stiff old stems. After the garlic is barely browned put just the stems in the pot and add maybe ¼ cup of water. Cover and steam for 5 or 10 minutes, until they are semi-tender. Then add the leaves: the big ones should be cut into large pieces, and steam for another 5 or 10 minutes. At the very end you might need to turn up the heat and boil away any excess water with the lid off, stirring.

I’m telling you, this is really good – be sure to make a lot. Everybody loves it, except for people who don’t eat garlic. If you’re one of those, or you’ve got one in your family, try my brother’s recipe – he’s married to a half-Italian. Leave out the garlic, but do the chard the same way, with olive oil. At the very end throw in a teaspoon or two of balsamic vinegar and toss it around. This is almost as good as Gloria’s recipe.

Oh, by the way, I’ve found the secret to growing luscious leafy chard is plenty of water and lots of fertilizer of the organic variety (see below).


Rockville Living notes

Composted manure is available for free (you haul away and perhaps make a donation to the farm) at Star Gazing Farm a couple times each year. Check their website for details.

Organic chard seeds are available at Dawson's Market in Rockville Town Square.

Organic chard, garlic, olive oil and balsamic vinegar are available at Dawson's Market and MOM's Organic Market.

Filed under Home & Garden, Food: organic, local, sustainably produced

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