It is one of the first crops of the season and also one of the last, but many consumers do not know what it is or what to do with it.
“A lot of people think Swiss chard is a cross between celery and spinach — I guess on appearance, maybe,” said Chris Lavalley, owner of Lavalley Farm Stand in Hooksett. The flavor of Swiss chard bears no similarities to that of spinach or celery, he added.
Swiss chard, though it is prepared in the same manner as spinach, does not make a good addition to a mixed green salad, Lavalley said. “It really needs to be cooked,” he said.
One bunch of Swiss chard would make a side dish for a family of four, Lavalley said.
“You can eat the whole thing. It’s not like beets when you throw the tops out, although some people do eat beet greens … some people think [the Swiss chard leaves] are the best part,” Lavalley said.
Being a frost-hardy plant, Swiss chard can be planted in mid-April and grow through October. Lavalley said it is usually ready to be picked in mid-May. He grows 1,000 feet of the leafy greens on his Pembroke farm.
“I think it should be a staple in everyone’s garden,” Lavalley said. “It doesn’t take up a lot of space and as soon as you want to plant it, you can.”
Swiss chard likes a lot of water and nitrogen (which is found naturally in soil but Lavalley adds more halfway through the season). The greens grow more slowly in cold weather than in warm and tend to get sweeter as they mature later in the season, Lavalley said.
Lavalley sells seeds for both Swiss and rainbow chard as well as Swiss chard plants during the season and noted the only difference between Swiss chard and rainbow chard is the color of the stems — rainbow chard is distinguished by its vibrant colored stems. “We don’t like that fancy stuff out here,” Lavalley said of not growing rainbow chard. “We have a hard enough time with people wanting to buy Swiss chard — what if it were purple or red?”
Benjamin Knack, executive chef at Bedford Village Inn in Bedford, said Swiss chard adds an earthiness to a dish. He noted that he will often braise Swiss chard slowly with onions, shallots and a little garlic or sauté thin shreds of the greens. Knack said he will also sauté rainbow chard with shallots, garlic or lemon juice and fresh herbs to use as a colorful garnish.
Knack attributed the increase in the popularity of Swiss chard to consumers seeking healthier food choices.
“Swiss chard is really high in antioxidants, which are great, and is low on the glycemic index,” he said.
As beets share some properties with Swiss chard, Knack likes to use the two in a dish together. “The flavor really works well,” he said.
Swiss chard and meat complement each other nicely, he said, adding that sometimes he will sauté both the steams and greens, then bake them with a little cream and parmesan cheese as a Southern-style side dish. The earthiness of the Swiss chard allows the greens to stand up on their own in a pasta dish, Knack added.