Saturday, June 10, 2006

Garden Desktop: Rainbow Chard

Rainbow chard is aptly named, covering almost the whole spectrum. It's delicious as well as beautiful. Young, tender leaves and stalks can be used to brighten up salads, while the mature chard makes a tasty steamed green similar to spinach. Let your chard go too long, until it's huge and tough? Use it in recipes that require chopped kale, it's a fair substitute. Chard comes in many colors, and to my way of thinking, the more the better! This is a widely available cultivar called 'Bright Lights'. I think it lives up to its name quite well!

If you are thinking that chard looks similar to beet greens, you are quite correct. Chard was developed long ago from beets, and bred to produce leaves instead of a beetroot. Chard in general lacks the characteristic bitter flavor of beet greens, although very large mature stalks seem to carry their share of the oxalic acid that gives beet greens that tang. Chard seed looks almost identical to beet seed, which means that it's large enough to be planted by hand rather than scattered like lettuce. Growing chard is quite simple, almost a matter of 'plant the seed and stand back'. I like to soak the seeds overnight before planting, as they will germinate much faster that way.

Don't have a garden? Chard will thrive in a flowerpot by a sunny window or on a balcony. A windowbox of brightly colored chard looks fresh and breezy, and will give you leaves until the hot dog-days of high summer if you pick it regularly. Snip the stalks down at the base of the plant, leaving only the smallest 2 - 4 inch leaves to continue growing. In about 2 weeks, you'll have another crop. Or simply snip every leaf bigger than 8 inches (leaf length only, not stalk) every few days.

If planting outdoors in a garden, a couple of caveats apply. Here in the Bay Area, chard is a favorite of thrips and leaf miners. Their larva can blight and ruin large sections of leaf. I've found that using some floating row cover works wonders. The chard appreciates a little more protection from evening chills, and the moisture-preserving effects of the row cover. Take a little section of 2-foot flower-border wire, chicken wire, or similar and bend it into an arch, like a little quonset hut. Fasten floating row cover to that with plastic bread ties or cable ties, and you have a nice re-usable cover for your chard and for other tender seedlings. You'll want 12 - 18 inches height for the chard-- it will grow taller, but it's getting tougher and bitter at that stage, so harvest at the 8 - 12 inch leaf stage for the best flavor and texture.

Hop on over to My Bay Area Kitchen to see some of this yummy chard in action.


Blogger june said...

Hey nice chard post!

Last year I planted chard at the wrong time and didn't get much out of it. This year I actually got my plants in the ground in the spring and I can't eat it as fast as it is growing.

Its now getting to a point where it is starting to get bitter. Do you know what it means when plants turn bitter? Is the bitterness only relevant to taste preference or is the nutrient value less once the plant turns bitter?

And if my plants make it to the fall will they no longer be bitter once its cooled off again?

11:35 AM PDT  
Blogger Strata said...

Hi June,

If your plants became more bitter when the weather got hot, they're probably thinking about bolting-- putting up a flowering stalk to grow seeds. If you harvest regularly, you're preventing that, but the plant may be trying anyway. :-) I don't know how it affects the nutrient value, but I suspect it probably goes UP, if anything, as the plant is loading itself with things required to grow the next generation.

The bitterness is probably to discourage being eaten by bad bugs, and encourage pollination by good bugs. Many butterflies, for instance, stay unpalatable to birds by drinking nectar from bad-tasting plants like milkweed or lettuce that has bolted.

I find that if I let the leaves get larger than from fingertips to wrist, they tend to get much more strong-tasting. Perhaps you're letting them get quite large? Try picking smaller leaves, rather than letting them get huge, too. You can also cook them with something slightly sweet, like dilute orange juice, or some balsamic vinegar, to help compensate for the stronger taste. Regular beet greens are just another form of chard, really, but I find them too bitter to eat!

11:43 PM PDT  
Blogger jacqueline said...

i have a really great rainbow chard recipe if you are interested.

8:33 PM PST  

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