Saturday, September 5, 2009

Eat Your Veggies: Chard

Growing up, I had some great food prejudices. These were mostly due to ignorance!

I should back up briefly: my mother grew up in Panama, and while you'd think the tropics are brimming with fresh produce, it's mostly fruit. She didn't grow up eating a lot of vegetables, at least the way she tells it, and they were almost always cooked.

She tried, though! A large portion of my childhood involved stir-fries: chicken or pork, cooked rapidly in a wok, followed by a heap of vegetables, then some soy sauce, and a side of white rice.

Later on, my parents became a lot more interested, and informed, about the health benefits of various vegetables. Since I was also interested in cooking, we searched for recipes that helped mitigate the perceived "weird taste" of certain vegetables. Bitter greens were first up on the, er, chopping block.

In this blog, I will warn you, I will not often provide recipes that include specific amounts of ingredients. Why? That's not how I cook. I am very comfortable in my kitchen, and I cook using all my senses, though smell is probably primary for me. I keep tinkering till something smells "right", because it is my belief that if it smells good, it's going to taste good!

Now, back to the Chard. Check out a nutritional profile of chard. Not too bad, eh? :)

I am going to share a method of cooking various greens, rather than specific recipes. I apply this to whatever happens to be around - chard, kale, etcetera. (I prefer raw baby spinach to cooked, but if I have "adult" spinach in my CSA box, I'll cook it this way as well).

First off, admit to yourself that these greens might very well be a little bitter. Bitterness is one of the main tastes of food (the others are Sour, Sweet, Salty, and Umami, or the dominant flavor in soy sauce or beef broth - that rich mouthfeel. Here is a better discussion of Umami).

The idea is to balance these different flavors, and come up with something that is complex-tasting and tantalizes your palate.

Here's how I cook bitter greens:

- Find your major categories of ingredients. I use aromatics (garlic, scallions, onions, any other spices I choose), fat (olive oil or bacon fat), a salty meat or cheese (bacon, salt pork, feta cheese), and nuts (I usually go for pine nuts or walnuts).

- First, cook down your meat, if applicable, in the pan you'll be using. (A one pan dish!) Take the meat out of the pan.

- Put your aromatics into the pan with the fat, and cook them down a bit until almost-translucent or translucent (depending on if you want a sharper flavor or a more mellow flavor). Leave the aromatics in the pan.

In this particular version, I have garlic and shallots in the pan, and to the side I have the chard stems separated from the leaves. The stems take a little longer to cook, so I often add them in before the aromatics are really done cooking.

- Put your greens in! Remember, greens greatly reduce in volume as they cook. This means you might have to add them in batches to your pan, but you can start with an insurmountable pile of greens, and end up with only a few servings for dinner!

- Turn the heat down after you add the greens. I like to add a couple of splashes of liquid to help the greens reduce - this could be a white wine, a beer, or some kind of vinegar (I like unfiltered apple cider vinegar).

- After the greens cook down a bit (maybe not all the way), add your meat back into the pan. I like to add some salt and freshly ground pepper at this point. If you like your food spicy, feel free to add some red pepper flakes, or other spices.

- Before you take the greens off the heat, if you like, add some feta cheese for extra creaminess and a great sharp flavor! Toss some nuts in, and you have a great side dish!

(For this one, I added Parmeggiano Romano, grated finely).

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