Each spring I look forward to harvesting, cooking and eating the flower buds that form on overwintered kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and red mustard.
Before their buds burst into yellow, bee-attracting flowers, these members of the Brassica family provide us with tasty side dishes and pasta sauces. Last week, as we were sharing a meal of sautéed red mustard leaves and their spicy flower buds with weekend guests, my friend Chris asked me if I’d ever eaten chard flower buds. No, I said, and wondered why I’d never considered the flower buds of this other overwintered green.
In the kitchen garden a few days later, I looked more closely at the flower heads that were forming on the bolting, overwintered chard plants.
Unlike the tight, broccoli and broccoli raab-like buds on kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and red mustard, these chard buds looked shaggy, loose and seedy, more like amaranth than the Brassica family buds I was used to harvesting.
This different appearance makes sense because chard and amaranth are members of the Goosefoot Family (Chenopodiaceae). But were the Goosefoot flower buds as edible and delicious as the Brassica buds?
Curious to know if other people harvested and cooked chard flower buds, I searched the Internet and found a July 29, 2009 blog entry titled “Eating Whole Food: When Chard Bolts,” by Deborah Madison, the chef and vegetable cookbook author whose inspiring work has guided my cooking for years. She describes surveying her bolting chard and deciding to cook and eat it instead of composting it: “True, it didn’t look much like the chard you buy at the store—no big fleshy leaves, here—but why assume what filled my arms wouldn’t be tender and tasty?”
Her account was all the encouragement I needed.
I harvested a basket of chard flower buds and took them to the kitchen where I rinsed them, wilted them in a covered skillet, keeping an eye on them to see how long they took to soften. After five minutes, the thin stems and leaves and the shaggy blossoms were tender and delicious, tasting sweet and earthy like new chard. I added some chopped garlic and olive oil and sautéed them for a few minutes more before serving them.
With lots more seed heads forming on my bolting chard plants, I’ve been using them in other favorite chard recipes. One night I made Scafata, a mixture of fava beans, onion, tomato and chard from Viana La Place’s still-inspiring 1991 cookbook Verdura.
I used fava beans I’d frozen last summer, tomatoes I’d roasted and frozen and the last red onion, sautéing these together before adding the chard stems and flower heads. The flower heads softened and blended into the favas, tomatoes and onions, creating a sauté of complementary flavors and textures.
I served this flavorful sauce over pasta garnishing it with lots of black pepper and coarsely grated Pecorino Romano cheese.
Last night I combined more chard flower buds with another set of flavors I often use with big chard leaves. Sautéing the chard buds in olive oil, garlic and shallots, I next added yellow raisins and red pepper flakes, and then served this sauté as a side dish garnished with toasted hazelnuts.
I also look forward to making the recipes Deborah Madison describes in her blog post: wilted chard “leaves, stems and flower clusters” tossed with “cilantro, which I love with chard, lemon, olive oil, sea salt, pepper and little extra lemon juice for acid.” She adds that any leftovers can be a salad the next day or go into a pita sandwich or a fritatta or be mixed with beans. So many possibilities.
There will be more chard meals in the next week or two before these flower buds bloom and the plants finally go to the compost. My thanks to Chris for making me curious and to Deborah Madison for inspiring me! Now there’s another flower bud to look forward to each spring.