Bright Lights Chard

Who needs spring tulips when the kitchen garden offers Bright Lights chard!  After picking a bunch of this lovely, overwintered chard the other day, I couldn’t resist arranging it in a rainbow and setting it out to admire. Chard in basket

The variety I’ve grown for the past few years is Bright Lights, Johnny’s Selected Seeds 1998 AAS winner. The Fedco catalog offers a glowing description and recent history of this chard: “Bright Lights bathes stems, midribs and secondary veins in a panoply of gold, yellow, orange, pink, intermediate pastels and dazzling stripes. The AAS judges were impressed by the tenderness of its dark green to bronze leaves and the mildness of its chard flavor…Developed by John Eaton of Lower Hutt, New Zealand, who found the parent plants, a red one and a yellow one, in a small home garden in 1977 and crossed them to standard green and white varieties, selecting for color and flavor over the next fifteen years. Johnny’s worked the following years to preserve the strength and range of the individual colors.”

Years ago, I grew the more aptly named Rainbow chard from Thompson and Morgan but turned to Bright Lights when Johnny’s introduced it.  Uprising Seeds in Bellingham offers Rainbow chard now so I may try it this year for a flavor and color comparison. Chard, rainbow cut up

Bright Lights or Rainbow, this chard is as gorgeous in the kitchen as it is in the garden.  I usually separate the stems from the leaves, chop them and steam them for a few minutes before slicing and adding the leaves.  This method gives one more chance to admire the colorful stems and results in leaves and stems that are equally tender.  Chard rainbow in skillet

Chard greens in skilletChard has the same earthy flavor that kale has, but it is more melt-in-the-mouth tender.  Eating it plain is such a treat that I often do no more than wilting it in the pan before serving it.  Still, chard does blend well with other flavors.  Garlic and olive oil, yellow raisins, toasted hazelnuts are all tasty additions.  There’s also our longtime favorite pasta dish from Alice Water’s Chez Panisse Pasta, Pizza and Calzone (1984): Chard, Goat Cheese and Buckwheat Pasta.  The sharp flavor of goat cheese is a perfect contrast to chard’s sweetness and the buckwheat pasta matches chard’s earthy notes.  We often make emmer flour pasta instead of buckwheat and use half as much cream and twice as much goat cheese.  This recipe is definitely one that invites variations.Chard, goat cheese pasta

Chard, Goat Cheese and Buckwheat Pasta

2 cloves garlic

1 large bunch chard

2 tablespoons butter

Salt and Pepper

1 cup cream

2 ounces goat cheese

Buckwheat pappardelle (for 2-4)

Chop the garlic 
Stem the chard. Slice the stems and cut the leaves crosswise in ribbons.  Wilt the stems and leaves in a covered skillet until barely tender.  Remove and drain. Melt the butter in the skillet, add the garlic and the drained chard and stew gently for 4 to 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Heat the cream. Crumble the goat cheese, add half of it to the cream and whisk until smooth.  Add to the chard and simmer gently for a few minutes.

Cook the pasta and add to the chard along with the rest of the goat cheese. Mix well and serve garnished with black pepper.

The leaves I’m harvesting now are from chard I planted nearly a year ago.  Like kale and other hardy greens, chard overwinters in our mild northwest climate and begins growing again in the spring, just in time to match the tulips but much more welcome because we can eat it.

In the Spring Kitchen Garden

The spring kitchen garden is full of promise right now.  The seeds I planted a month ago have germinated, the first sets of leaves have survived bugs and slugs, and young plants are growing and thriving.  Seeds I started indoors and set outside are growing too. Though everything is still weeks away from maturity, this brief stretch between planting and harvesting offers a restful moment to admire the garden and anticipate the meals ahead.

Red stems beneath light green beet leaves hint at the sweet, round roots to come. Turnips are in the same state of thriving tops but just the tiniest, earthy roots.  Kohlrabi bulbs are even farther off.  Only the fast-growing radishes have risen above the dirt, previewing what will come soon from the other roots.  Feathery carrot tops are just a few inches high, no orange in sight, while taller fennel fronds rise above slowly swelling white bulbs.

Onions look more like sturdy young scallions than the papery storage onions they’ll become and the potatoes are low, green rosettes at the bottom of their trenches, baby spuds a month or more away. The sugar snap peas are three feet tall and climbing but show no blossoms yet.  Broccoli and cauliflower plants are robust but haven’t formed their buds.  It’s all foliage and no food but such beautiful foliage.

Against this fresh, spring foliage we’re grateful for several stands of over-wintered greens that are providing delicious meals as well as their own large-leafed beauty.  Spinach planted late last September and chards and red mustard planted late last July all overwintered and have been putting out sweet, succulent leaves since March.

The Bloomsdale Longstanding spinach has been especially good this year.  The smaller, early leaves were wonderful raw in salads and the larger, later leaves have been perfect for wilting and embellishing with other flavors.  A favorite dish lately has been wilted spinach tossed with sautéed garlic and yellow raisins and topped with toasted hazelnuts and grated Parmesan cheese.  It’s an elegant side dish but it’s also delicious mixed with ricotta, layered between slices of polenta and baked.

Overwintered Rainbow chard, along with Fordhook Giant and Rhubarb chard have all come on strong in the past few weeks.  I cut the colorful stalks into half-inch pieces and steam them until they are crisp tender before adding the leaves and continuing cooking until both leaves and stalks are tender.  While many Indian spices as well as sautéed onion or garlic are good additions to chard, I most often serve it plain because I love the flavor of chard alone.

I’ve written about wonderful red mustard already ( but I’ll add here that an additional treat is the sturdy mustard flower heads that have been forming this past week.  Brushed with olive oil, sprinkled with a little salt and roasted in a 400-degree oven for 8-10 minutes, the leaves become crispy, the stalks soft, the pungent mustard flavor delicious.

There is a lot to admire in the spring kitchen garden, both what has carried over from the winter garden and what is soon to come from early spring plantings.  To keep this beauty and bounty coming, I’ll soon plant another bed of beets, carrots, turnips, fennel and radishes that will be ready when the present bed is done. We’re entering the season of succession planting, a wonderful excuse to be outdoors in the garden.