Cheap and cheerful chard – and child’s play to grow!

Leaf Beet Swiss ChardBefore I had my allotment and was reliant on deliveries of organic vegetable boxes to keep me in fresh veg, I used to groan when my winter deliveries were full of chard. What on earth do I do with this, I would think – and inevitably it would often end up on the compost heap, unused and unloved…

Now I grow my own, Swiss chard is one of my staple winter vegetables and I’ve discovered lots of delicious ways of cooking it. Chard is extremely good for you: it is an excellent source of vitamin K, vitamin A, vitamin C, magnesium, copper, manganese, potassium, vitamin E and iron – and it tastes pretty good too! It’s also extremely easy to grow: I usually sow it along with my spinach and beetroot and early salad crops in late March/early April (weather permitting). It germinates relatively quickly, doesn’t seem to be attractive to slugs (hurrah!) and provides young leaves for salads in next to no time, followed by large leaves and stems that crop until the following year. It’s remarkably hardy, even more so than the perpetual spinach I grow it alongside, and as long as you cut down any chunky stems that threaten to flower, it really does keep on cropping and cropping. I have grown ruby chard and the Bright Lights series of multi-coloured stems (yellows and deep reds), but I think the standard white variety has the best taste and performance in the ground: I grew White Silver this year, but there are plenty to choose from.

Golden chardAs a general rule, you can use the leaves as you would spinach, but the stems are delicious too. They tend to need a bit more cooking, so remove the leaves and slice the stems thinly, giving them 5 or so minutes more cooking than the leaves.

So what to do with this miracle veg? I use it chopped in stir-fries or curries for extra green oomph, but it also makes a delicious Chard Gratin if you boil the stems for 5 minutes, then add the leaves to steam on top for a further 3 minutes. Turn into a shallow gratin dish and top with a cheese sauce (add freshly ground nutmeg and wholegrain mustard to taste!), then grate more cheese (Cheddar or Parmesan) on top, sprinkle with breadcrumbs and cook in a hot oven (200°C) for 20 minutes or so – delicious with casseroles, roast meat or sausages! You can do the same with Savoy cabbage for an interesting variation, and of course you could add onions or leeks if you wanted to ring the changes…

Sarah Raven also has some delicious ideas in her Garden Cookbook, including this wholesome soup, which I’ve adapted slightly to suit whatever was in my plot at the time:

Chard and Coconut Soup

 350g chard (or a large bunch – whatever you have!)

1 leek, finely chopped

1 large potato, finely diced

2 medium onions, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, chopped

2 tbsp olive oil (or mixture of butter and oil)

1 litre homemade vegetable stock (or chicken if that’s what you have!)

400 ml tin coconut milk

Freshly grated nutmeg

1 bay leaf

Salt and pepper

Parsley to garnish

Prepare the chard by washing thoroughly (like spinach, it can be gritty), strip the green leaves off the stem and chop finely, then chop the stems separately.

Sweat the onion, garlic and leeks gently in the oil (or butter and oil) for about 10 minutes until soft, then add the potato and chard stems and cook for a further 5 minutes. Add the leaves, stock, bay leaf, grated nutmeg and coconut milk, stir thoroughly and bring back to the boil, then simmer for 20 minutes until everything is cooked through. Allow to cool, remove the bay leaf, then whizz in a liquidizer until smooth. Season to taste and serve with fresh bread and parsley to garnish.

This should make enough for 5-6 generous helpings and freezes beautifully.

Another of my favourite chard recipes is a vegetable side dish with extra zing. It came originally from the recipe sheets that accompanied my organic boxes, so was actually my first introduction to the charms of chard!

Chard and Tomato Bake

Serves 4

Bunch of Swiss chard, leaves and stems washed and chopped separately as above

1 onion, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, chopped

1 tbsp olive oil

200g tomatoes, skinned and chopped

Grated juice of 1 lemon

Handful of fresh (or frozen) breadcrumbs

Chopped herbs of your choice: oregano, basil or parsley all work well

75g grated Cheddar or Parmesan

Seasoning

Prepare the chard as above.

Sweat the onion and garlic in the olive oil for 10 minutes or so until soft. Add the chopped tomatoes and chard stems and cook for a further 5 mins, then add the chard leaves, herbs and grated lemon rind. Cook for a few minutes, then season, turn into a shallow gratin dish and top with the breadcrumbs and grated cheese.

Cook in a hot oven (200°C) for 15 minutes or until golden.

Delicious with sausages, chops or roast meat.

My final suggestion for chard is another ever-so-slightly adapted recipe from Sarah Raven, again from the Garden Cookbook, but I first had these on a visit to one of Sarah’s fabulous garden Open Days at Perch Hill, East Sussex, luckily not very far from me at all!

Chard and Feta Parcels

1 leek, finely chopped

25g butter

200g chard, leaves only, finely chopped (or spinach)

200g feta cheese, crumbled

100g Parmesan, grated

Handful of sultanas

1 egg, beaten

Freshly ground nutmeg

Salt and pepper

1 packet filo pastry sheets

Extra melted butter

Sesame or poppy seeds to sprinkle

 Cook the leek in the butter until soft, then add the finely chopped chard for a few minutes. Take off the heat and add the crumbled feta, Parmesan, egg, sultanas, nutmeg and seasoning, mixing well.

Take one sheet of filo pastry and cut into 10 cm wide strips. Brush on one side with the extra melted butter, then put 1 tbsp of the chard mixture in the top right-hand corner and fold over into a triangle, then keep folding the triangle alternately down the length of the strip, ending up with a triangular parcel, several layers thick. Transfer to a baking tray, brush with extra butter and sprinkle with sesame or poppy seeds. Repeat with the rest of the pastry until you’ve used up the chard mixture.

You can freeze at this stage, or cook the parcels in a hot oven (200°C) until golden brown.

Scrumptious with a salad for lunch or delicious picnic fare – I’ve taken these to the tennis championships at Eastbourne as part of our “posh” picnic – perfect!

Plot with chard Jan 2015

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Soup, glorious soup…

My first full weekend at home of the New Year and a lovely cold, yet sunny couple of days to boot – perfect for getting the allotment back in shape after a prolonged absence due to bad weather, pre-Christmas activities and a magical New Year trip to Austria.

It’s been ages since I went down to the plot for anything other than to harvest: brief visits to snatch up leeks or parsnips and only time for an apologetic glance at the general desolation. To be fair, most people’s plots are looking fairly sad at this time of year, and at least there is still plenty to pick on mine! The fact that my new neighbour’s plot has had a makeover and is pristine with shiny new raised beds and a beautiful wooden fruit cage, plus sturdy supports for espaliered fruit trees and a sandpit puts the rest of us to shame, however. Replacing my decaying (but 7/8-year-old) scaffolding board beds is definitely a priority this year…

Sad January allotment 2015

In the meantime, I spent a couple of hours finally getting round to a number of long overdue jobs: cutting down the spent asparagus stems – a job I should have done back in autumn in a bid to stop the dreaded asparagus beetle from overwintering, although it’s been pretty mild so far, so maybe a few sharp frosts between now and spring will still reap rewards; cutting down the dahlia foliage, another job I should have done in November, but it’s never done any harm leaving it in the past and my tubers are so huge now that they seem pretty resilient; taking down the runner/French bean tripods (I know, shameful to still have them standing in January and even more amazing that the wind hasn’t blown them down!) and general weeding – where does all that chickweed come from?! Two and a half hours of highly enjoyable pottering later, my plot looks radically improved, more or less weed-free (barring the paths, which need topping up with bark chippings) and ready to call in some help to reinstate the beds!

Today’s haul was a creditable trug full of calabrese (so much better than last year, thanks to the Enviromesh which kept out the pigeons AND the caterpillars), leeks, parsley, rocket, Swiss chard, parsnips, swede and carrots. Not bad for a January day!

There was plenty of calabrese for my stir-fried rice last night, as a vegetable accompaniment for tonight’s Shetland lamb chop in red wine & redcurrant sauce and for the majority to go in a delicious broccoli and stilton soup. I wasn’t sure about this recipe before I tried it, thinking the heavy dose of brassicas might make it sulphurous, but the combination of the broccoli (or calabrese) and blue Stilton is inspired. Delicious for lunch with crusty bread, or as a dinner party starter if you feel so inclined.

Broccoli and Stilton Soup

Broccoli and stilton soup

2 tbsp olive oil

1 knob butter

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 leek, chopped,

2 sticks celery, chopped

1 medium potato, diced (or use a large potato if you prefer your soup thicker)

1 head broccoli or calabrese, chopped (or a selection of smaller side stems if that’s what you have)

150 g Blue Stilton (or other blue cheese), roughly crumbled

1 litre homemade chicken or vegetable stock

Chopped parsley

Salt and pepper

Cook the onions in the olive oil and butter until soft – about 10 minutes. Add the chopped celery, leek, and potato and cook for a further 5 minutes. Pour in the stock and add the chopped broccoli. Bring to the boil, cover and allow to simmer for 20-25 minutes. Add the crumbled Stilton and parsley, stir for a couple of minutes, then season and allow to cool before blending in a liquidizer. Serve hot and enjoy the very distinctive and delicious taste!

Soup maker Amazon

Having received an electric soup maker for Christmas (Morphy Richards Sauté and Soup), I thought I’d experiment with this recipe. I’ve made it before using the above method, but adapted it today for the soup maker as the liquid volume was the same as the recipes in the book supplied. On the whole it worked well, and should in theory cut down on washing-up and avoid the need to wait for the soup to cool before transferring to the liquidizer (often a messy operation!) as the entire process takes place in the soup maker. My problem was that the volume of vegetables meant that adding the stock would have brought the level to beyond the maximum marker, so I ended up just adding the broccoli stalks initially, then transferring the blended soup to a pan and adding the broccoli florets and Stilton, then returning most of the liquid and solid chunks to the soup maker and doing a final blend – which probably defeats the object…..! I’m undoubtedly far too set in my ways and used to making huge volumes of soup without thinking about restricting quantities – especially with my usual allotment-scale gluts of produce! However, if you aren’t dealing with such large amounts and are prepared to stick fairly closely to the recipes, the resulting soup was certainly just as nice as when I’ve made it in the past using the old-fashioned method! If anything, I missed the alchemy of stirring, tasting and adjusting as I went; the fact that it’s all contained admittedly rules out any chance of the kitchen steaming up or the pan boiling over, but it also means you can’t adapt as you go. What was that about old dogs and new tricks…..?

Anyway, Happy New Year and happy soup-making!