The first time gardener: Swiss Chard

Swiss chard grown in Dublin, just cut and ready for dinner

Swiss chard grown in Dublin, just cut and ready for dinner

This year’s new project was to create a kitchen garden in my back garden in North Dublin city. The magnitude of this project can only be comprehended when seen through the prism of my illustrious botanical CV.

Previous experience with growing living things involved killing anything with leaves within a 2m radius, including two cacti. Apart from one hardy cheese plant I inherited from a departing friend, which has inexplicably survived for a decade despite sometimes not seeing water for 6 months at a time, I have managed to keep alive a grand total of zero plants.

Therefore, it is no mean feat for me to announce that today for the very first time, I harvested and ate something I grew myself. In my back garden. In Dublin. That beautiful thing is called Swiss Chard. 

Swiss Chard was more familiar to me in its French form, bette. My vegetarian acquaintances would eat Swiss Chard bake (gratin de cotes de bette) for protein and it’s a taste that is firmly rooted in my adolescence. Chard has a delicate but distinct flavour that I have not enjoyed for over a decade and tonight, I went home to Switzerland for dinner by eating my very own Swiss Chard bake from the garden.

Swiss Chard is a brassica, a family of veg that includes cabbages, cauliflower and spinach. It’s sometimes called silver beet. It does not travel well, which means its unlikely to ever end up on a supermarket shelf. Yet it’s hardy, quick and easy to grow. I sowed the chard from seed, sometime during April. When the seedlings appeared and seemed strong enough, I thinned them and transplanted them to give them more space. Then I just let them at it, watering them every night. Or delegating the watering. That may have happened a bit…

The chard leaves shot up like grass during June, producing big curly dark green leaves out of vivid yellow, purple, red or green stalks, a truly beautiful collection of colours. Baby leaves can be used in salads but personally, I have no interest in salad so I let the leaves mature. Those larger leaves can be cut from the outside of the plant, including the stalk but taking care not to knock off the budding new leaves. The beauty of chard is that it is meant to keep on giving well into the autumn.

Swiss Chard and Pasta Bake

The key to this deliciously simple dish is not to let any flavours crowd out the taste of the chard. That’s why I didn’t include garlic or onion in the preparation of the bake.

  • Cut approximately 700g of Swiss Chard from your plants, picking the strongest, outermost leaves first and including as much of the stalk as possible.
  • Boil up some wholewheat pasta fusili (or whatever pasta you prefer) and while you’re doing that, pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees C.
  • While the pasta is cooking, chop the stems off the chard and cut them into 2cm pieces.
  • Shred the leaves with a scissors to make ribbons
  • Boil some water in a large pot and add salt and a glass of milk
  • Throw in the chard stems and cook them for 3 mins
  • Add in the shredded leaves, it may look like you have too much to fit but they will quickly melt down like spinach leaves. Boil them for a couple more minutes.
  • Throw the pasta, drained chard stems and leaves and a couple of quartered fresh tomatoes into a baking dish.
  • Mix all the ingredients, add salt and pepper to taste along with a dash of sauce made up of light cream and parmesan.
  • Sprinkle parmesan on the top
  • Cook for between 15 and 30 mins (to taste)

The result is a delicately balanced dish where the flavours of tomato, parmesan and chard come together with the pasta to  make the meal feel complete. It’s a great way to introduce chard to someone who has never eaten it (as proven by the speed my baking dish was emptied) and I suspect the bake would be well received by kids being introduced to a wider variety of veg.

As for lessons learned when it comes to growing the Chard in the first place, I’d probably give my plants even more breathing space as I think they’re a bit crowded out there but hey, it’s a kitchen garden so they’ll have to make do and be glad I remember to water them on occasion.


About monicaheck
Monica Heck is a bilingual freelance writer and journalist based in Dublin, Ireland.

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