Whenever I’m asked by people about what to grow when you take over an allotment, or start a veg bed at home, the answer is always the same. Potatoes and Swiss chard. Potatoes are great, as they do some of the soil improving work for you, not least when you have to dig your harvest in the summer. However, Swiss chard is the real star, it just keeps on giving. We got turned on to chard when we used to get a veg box from the fantastic Barcombe Nurseries. We’d get home from work to find a small box of vegetable and fruit delights; each week a different selection, but nearly always including Swiss chard. It’s just so versatile. It can be used as a spinach alternative, mixed with ricotta to fill cannelloni or ravioli for example; but its earthy, iron-rich flavours are robust enough to be an accompaniment to a piece of meat after only a wilting with some garlic and a dash of lemon juice and olive oil. Its stalks can be chopped and added to curries, or steamed, then made into a cheesy gratin.
I’ve found that Swiss chard is also pretty easy to grow and incredibly hardy, often lasting for over a whole season. Like spinach and beetroot (to which it is related) it has a seed cluster, and each cluster can produce three or four seedlings. I tend to grow mine in modules (a cluster to each section) and then prick out weaker plants, before transplanting out. This seems to allow the plants to establish before setting them in the path of the slugs that prowl my allotment; the plants larger size is defence enough from the potential mollusc attack. Once established the plants grow well, and if picked sparingly from the outer leaves, will give you a harvest for a significant season. The baby leaves are an excellent addition to a mixed salad, and if you sow the ruby or rainbow varieties, add colour too. Indeed, I would suggest rainbow chard is worth sowing for the vibrant colour of the leaves alone.
Last night we used this delicious leaf in a simple chard pilaf to accompany a range of curries which had been in the freezer in small portions.
You will need
400g Swiss chard
200g uncooked rice, pre-soaked for 10 minutes
50ml olive oil
75g chopped spring onions
1 lemon, squeezed
A handful of chopped fresh coriander
Wash the Swiss chard well. Remove the stalks and finely chop, then shred the leaves and set aside to drain. Heat the oil and soften the spring onions before seasoning with salt and a pinch of garam masala. Add the rice and toss it in the onions for a few minutes, so that it is coated in the spicy oil. Then throw in the chard stalks, leaves, and coriander and cook for a minute or so. Add 400ml boiling water (or better still stock) and bring to the boil. Cover, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for about 15-20 minutes or until the rice is just cooked. Allow the pilaf to stand for a few minutes before serving.