If you’re a food lover, one of the great things about the internet is that now you can easily find recipes from other countries and cultures, which can introduce you to a range of unfamiliar foods. The downside is that you’ll often head down the rabbit hole of finding unfamiliar ingredients, or familiar ingredients under an unfamiliar name, in those recipes. One good example of this is “silverbeet,” which is nothing more exotic that good old Swiss chard.
What’s in a Name?
The vegetable we know as “Swiss” chard has nothing particularly Swiss about it. In fact, it’s been grown since ancient times, long before there was a Switzerland to name it after.
It’s a close relative of the beet, and beet leaves look very much like a chard leaf in miniature. Chard, of course, is grown for its large leaves and juicy stems rather than for its root. It’s cherished in Mediterranean countries for its tolerance of the hot, dry summers, soldiering on for months after the spinach bolts and goes to seed. Farther north, it’s valued for its ability to hang in as the weather cools right until frost hits.
Chard has any number of names aside from chard and silverbeet, because of its long history and widespread use. In English alone, food historian Clifford Wright lists white beet, strawberry spinach, seakale beet, leaf beet, Sicilian beet, Spinach beet and Roman kale, among its other aliases.
Cooking Swiss Chard
Chard leaves are slightly sturdier than spinach, but nowhere nearly as rugged as kale or collards. They can be steamed or boiled in the same ways as spinach and other quick-cooking greens like turnip or beet greens, as a quick and simple summer side dish. Chopped or shredded, they make a fine addition to soups.
They’re also tender enough to saute or add to stir-fries, which preserves more of the leaves’ texture than boiling. They’re especially tasty when added to caramelized onions, with or without a savory addition such as crumbled bacon or toasted walnuts or pine nuts.
The stems are crunchy and juicy, and they can be treated as an entirely separate vegetable, if you wish. They can be thin-sliced and stir-fried, whole stems can be braised in a sauce or other liquid, or simply boiled or steamed with the rest of your vegetables as part of a summer medley. Stems of the red varieties will tint your other foods with a rosy hue if they’re cooked together.
An Unusual Silver Beet Recipe
You can also use chard leaves in pies, quiches and frittatas to substitute for spinach. Typically, those dishes are savory, like the various versions of Italy’s Easter pie. One notable exception is a Provencal dessert, tourte de blettes, a specialty of the countryside around Nice.
“Blette” is the local word for chard, and it’s a much-loved staple crop in that area. The tourte de blettes, or chard tart, combines it with other signature local ingredients to make an unlikely, but tasty dessert. The crust for the tart is thick and rustic, not elegant and flaky, so it’s both sturdy and filling.
Most variations of the recipe start by rubbing or briefly sauteing the leaves to wilt them. The filling combines the leaves with eggs and a modest amount of sugar, toasted pine nuts, raisins, breadcrumbs, and either Pernod or the local anise-flavored liqueur called pastis. Most recipes include either apples or pears as well as the dried fruit and a generous handful of grated Parmesan to provide a savory note.
That may sound strange at first, but many Americans like a slice of cheese on their apple pie, and the combination works just as well here. The finished pie is dusted with powdered sugar and served in generous slabs or wedges, with the taste of the chard lending an earthy undertone to the sweet flavors of the fruit and liqueur.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.