Rainbow (chard) Not Over Yet

At Seed Savers, it’s 5 Color Silverbeet. At Johnny’s, which got an AAS award for it in 1998, it’s Bright Lights. At our place, it’s just rainbow chard, a must-plant delight: easy to grow, easy to cook, beautiful all summer long and long into the fall.

Bill insists it’s sweeter after frost; I think he’s simply confusing it with cole crops like kale and collards, which are sweeter, because temperatures below 40 destroy sulfur compounds. Sweetened or not, rainbow is slightly less frost hardy than regular chard, so we dug it up when temperatures started going way down – way back in early November there actually were a couple of nights when it hit the mid-teens.

The plants were set upright in a big pot lined with a thick plastic bag, with no more dirt than what was left clinging to the substantial roots. The pot was stored in an unheated enclosed porch , aka our well-lit walk-in. Every once in a while, I pour some water over the bases, but not very much.

chard plant, out of pot for photographic purposes

We have been harvesting regularly, breaking off leaves as needed as though the plants were still in the ground. When all have been eaten, we’ll compost the stumps. They could be replanted in mid-spring, if we wanted to save seed, but we’re not that dedicated. (Colors cross, so the pros grow each one in isolation and mix the seeds at packaging. )

Some say the different colors taste different, a lot to assert given that the colors include pink, red, purple, magenta, orange, yellow, white, white with pink stripes and some extremely zingy mixtures of pink and tangerine. All I can say is that none of them are as good as plain old white-stemmed Lucullus. But gorgeousness counts, even if the colors don’t stand up all that well when cooked.

Cooking Swiss Chard

is sort of like cooking chickens and turkeys – it helps to remember that cooking the thing whole is likely to be unkind to one part. Instead of light and dark meat, chard has stems (petioles) and leaves.

Chard Stems appear almost celerylike, very sturdy and crisp when raw. But at least when the chard is freshly harvested, they get tender quickly and tend to end up unpleasantly flabby if cooked for more than a few minutes. Most recipes say the stems are tougher than the leaves and should be cooked longer, but when we cook the chard from the garden we add the chopped stems near the end, shortly before the leaves have cooked through.

In Europe , stems are as highly prized as the leaves and those from varieties like Blonde de Lyon and Monstruoso are frequently cooked solo. Standard advice is to cook them like asparagus , which I take to mean “like asparagus the old-fashioned way: briefly blanched, thoroughly drained, then finished with a rich sauce such as browned butter or hollandaise.” You’d think boiling would be ill-advised with something so watery, but in my experience it works as well or better than steaming and stir-frying.

The alternative, especially when you want to preserve the bright colors of Rainbow types, is not to cook the stems at all. Just slice thinly crosswise (longitudinal julienne can be stringy) and sprinkle over hot cooked greens, toss into salad or add to a slaw of fennel and celery.
Not much needs saying about the Chard Leaves, except that they’re delicious prepared any way you’d prepare spinach and most of the ways you’d prepare stronger greens like kale and broccoli raab. Also nice stuffed and stewed, just sub pairs of them for the single cabbage leaves in your favorite stuffed cabbage recipe.

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