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In Praise of Swiss Chard - May 2014

I like a vegetable that can go from plot to plate in minutes, without digging, peeling or significant preparation. In the summer I am spoilt for choice with the mange touts, French beans, courgettes and so on, but when the frost arrive and the summer veg depart, Swiss chard comes into its own. It has a long season of productivity and is hardy enough to get through most winters with just a little protection from fleece, growing away again in the spring to give a last crop in the hungry gap before flowering. It's very easy to grow as well, being prone to no pests that I have found, and needing only watering through very hot weather to thrive, willing also to sit around until required without bolting or going over. On top of all this, the brightly coloured forms look really beautiful in the garden. So why do more people not grow it?

 Broadly used across the Mediterranean countries, Swiss chard is little used in this country, and absent from the supermarket shelves. It can take a bit of figuring out in the kitchen as it can be rather baffling that it is two vegetables in one. You often read that the leaves can be treated as spinach, but they don't wilt down in the way spinach does, and so that doesn't really work. And then there are the stems, which are rather unlike anything else in the garden. I confess that I grew it for several years before it found its way regularly onto my menu.

 The first way I discovered to use it was to include the sliced stems in stir-fries, although most of the green leaves go to waste this way, as they are too bulky to include. It really comes into its own, though, when you explore the way Mediterranean cooks treat it. After all, the Italians and Greeks know a thing or two about how to cook vegetables. Swiss chard and pasta has become one of my stand-by lunches throughout early winter. On those days when I give no thought to what lunch will be until I stop work at 1, I can still be eating proper, delicious cooked food by 1.30. The Swiss chard pie is a more celebratory dish, requiring a little more work, but rewarding the cook with a pie that tastes much more than the sum of its parts.

This spring, why not sow a few Swiss chard seeds? Half a dozen plants is plenty, and it takes up little space and less effort. Come the dark days with their shortage of more delicate vegetables, you will be glad you did.