Kale is everywhere — in soups, salads, smoothies and baked into chips. I expect to see a recipe for kale ice cream next.
I think it’s time for kale to move over and make room for another green powerhouse — Swiss chard.
Although Swiss chard often is overlooked, it’s a nutritious superstar in its own right. This relative of the beet is an excellent source of vitamins A, C and K, as well as magnesium, potassium and iron. Many of these popular greens (chard, collards, mustard greens, spinach, kale) can be used interchangeably in recipes, but since my husband prefers the flavor of Swiss chard (he hates kale), this is the green I am more likely to use when making soups, frittatas, pasta and simple side dishes.
Swiss chard (named after a Swiss botanist) is originally from the Mediterranean region. This vegetable, with its large, fleshy but tender deep green leaves and thick, crisp stalks, is also called chard, leaf beet and spinach beet. Different varieties may have red, pink, white or yellow stalks (there is even rainbow chard), which are quite beautiful and add nice bright pinks, reds and yellows to your dish.
The robust flavor is the same no matter the color. Select large, firm leaves with a bright green color and no brown spots or small holes for the best quality and flavor. Wash, then cut off the stems and remove the ribs from older leaves. Chard can be stored in the refrigerator for two or three days wrapped in moistened paper towels and placed in an unsealed plastic bag. Leaves can be left whole, or chopped, as required.
Briefly blanching or steaming before continuing with other cooking methods decreases the slightly bitter flavor of chard and tenderizes the leaves for a better texture. The leaf and the stalks should be cooked separately (or you can begin cooking the stalks first so all are finished at once).
Zuppa di Pasta e Ceci
Adapted from “The Four Seasons of Pasta,” by Nancy Harmon Jenkins and Sara Jenkins ($35). The summer fruit and spicy wood smoke aromas in 2014 True Grit Reserve Chardonnay ($30) pairs well with the creamy broth and can stand up to the earthy flavors of the Swiss chard and garbanzo beans.
6 cups chicken stock (either homemade or low-sodium canned)
1 or 2 bunches fresh Swiss chard or other green
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons finely diced pancetta or thick, country-style bacon
1 garlic clove, lightly smashed with the flat blade of a knife
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup cooked chickpeas, well drained (either homemade or canned)
1 cup pasta (small shapes are best — miniature shells, cavatelli, mostaccioli, orzo, etc.)
1 red chile pepper, fresh or dried, if desired
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino sardo or other firm cheese
While the stock is heating, prepare the greens, stripping away the tough center stalks where necessary and slivering the leaves. You will have 7 to 8 cups trimmed and slivered greens.
In a medium saucepan, combine the olive oil and pancetta and set over medium-low heat. Cook until the pancetta fat starts to run, and the little cubes begin to brown and crisp. Add the smashed garlic and continue cooking, raising the heat slightly, until the garlic has browned on all sides. Remove the garlic and set aside. Add the greens to the pan with the water clinging to their leaves. (You may not be able to get all the greens in at once; let the early ones cook down a bit, then add another handful, and keep doing that until all the greens are in the pan.) You may wish to add about 1/2 inch of boiling water to the pan to keep the greens from scorching. Cook the greens until they are thoroughly limp, adding salt and pepper to taste.
By now the stock should be simmering. Add the greens with the pancetta to the stock. You may add a tablespoon or so of liquid left in the bottom of the greens pan but don’t add a lot more because it may darken the clear, rich color of the stock. If you wish, chop the reserved garlic clove and add it to the stock. Stir in the chickpeas and the pasta, along with as much or as little of the dried red chile as you wish. Let simmer until the pasta is done — about 8 or 10 minutes. Serve immediately, while the soup is hot. Pass the grated cheese at the table.
Yield: 6 servings