Chard Epiphany

Way back in grade school, the hot lunch line did a pretty good job of persuading me that canned food was superior to the fresh variety. I came to believe that fruit cocktail epitomized “fruit,” which required a gelatinous glaze of syrup, and the green beans were inherently a salty, otherwise rather tasteless product. They were palatable. Conversely, in my view, the fresh stuff – what little I ate – just tasted too much like what it was. Steamed spinach made me gag. At the age of 26, I ate a small helping of collard greens at an African-American literature class’ end-of-the-semester party that Sam “Catfish” Cornish insisted be catered with only traditional southern fixin’s, potluck style. I had a few bites, but that was it – otherwise, I stuck with my bland, canned, familiar fare.

In Eight Weeks to Optimum Health, Dr. Weil mentions that at around thirty years of age, he decided to give up in large part the consumption of alcohol. I was about thirty when I started working full-time as Andy’s gardener. I decided that if I was going to be a self-righteous vegetarian tending to the virility of The Doctor’s organic vegetables, I should probably try eating them, including the green ones. I started with Swiss chard.

Though there are several different varieties of Swiss chard, the most commonly grown market variety available seems to be “bright lights.” The young, tender leaves are a pleasantly deep green that contrasts with a variety of orange, red, yellow, pink and white stems. Brassicas (collards, kale, cabbage, kohlrabi, etc.) dominate the winter garden at the ranch, so the chard is a welcome splash of color in the otherwise modest, muted, slow-growing sea of large-leafed plants of the cabbage family.

The only question it ever posed to me, in fact, is why it’s called Swiss chard. Apparently, French seed catalogs sold cardoon (Cynara cardunculus, also known as artichoke thistle) seeds and chard seeds under the same name, so Swiss was added to distinguish these two distinct plants.

Swiss chard will grow in a variety of conditions. Because it’s a leafy, green plant, a fertile soil will help it along, though I have grown it successfully in nearly depleted soil with good results. Germinating the seed requires no particular effort beyond adding water. All in all, if you’re intimidated by the task of growing food, this is a good plant to start with. It fills out enough to harvest in a couple of months and will grow continuously if you harvest it properly, removing the outer leaves and allowing more leaves to grow from the center. The young, tender leaves taste best. In milder climates, certain varieties will grow perennially.

Beyond its attractive coloring and easy growing requirements, Swiss chard is a wonderfully nutritious plant that can be eaten fresh, steamed, braised, juiced, sautéed, frozen and dried. It is full of dietary fiber and is great for your digestive tract. It’s full of vitamin K which is good for your bones. It’s got carotenes, vitamin C and vitamin E in good supply, vitamin B6, calcium, protein, as well as a host of other nutrients including thiamin, niacin and folic acid. If you want to try growing your own food and don’t have time to tend a vegetable patch, this low-maintenance and strikingly beautiful plant will give you no trouble at all. Most markets carry fresh chard year ’round and it is easy to find organically grown.

Now, I love fresh vegetables. Swiss chard showed me the way.

By Jace Mortensen, Guest Commentator News

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