Swiss chard is a member of the beet family; the “Swiss” part of the name is a puzzle. Italians call the leafy plant bietola, the beet root barbabietola (“beard of chard”), and revere it in the kitchen. If more Americans ignored their fear of fat and cooked it Italian-style—short on time but long on olive oil, garlic and flavor—they would respect this delicious, nutritious vegetable.
Chard comes in several varieties: white, red and Bright Lights in kaleidoscopic pink, yellow, orange, red and white stems. You can use the big leaves to wrap pâtés and other foods, the long stems in terrines and fillings, in risotto, pasta and soup; you might spice or cheese it up with all kinds of pungent additions. My favorite is ruby red chard, where the brilliant stems take on the earthy sweetness of beets and the tender leaves the edge of spinach. Somehow always I come back to this simple method.
Makes about 4 servings.
1 bunch mature Swiss chard, about ¾ pound
2 or 3 tablespoons olive oil, to taste
1 clove of garlic, sliced or minced according to taste
Grated Parmesan or other cheese, if desired
Trim the tips of the stem ends and any ragged leaves. On a cutting board, lay each leaf flat and cut on either side of the thick central stem, leaving the green leaf behind. Tear the leaves into smaller pieces. Wash the leaves and stems; put the leaves in a colander and the stems on top to drain well. You don’t need to dry them.
Shortly before cooking, cut the thick stems into ½- to ¾-inch segments. Put the oil in a wide pan and add the stems, sauté them over moderate heat, stirring, for about 5 to 7 minutes, until they soften. Add the garlic. As it softens, add the leaves with any water on them a handful at a time; you may want to add a little more water and partially cover the pan. Stir, folding them under into the oil as they wilt, until all the leaves are cooked and tender, with the red stems mixed into the green leaves, 15 minutes or more in all. Salt and pepper to taste. Grated Parmesan or other cheese goes well, but is not necessary. Serve soon.