In gardening, as in other food matters, there is something to be said for the lackadaisical, unresearched, no-preconceptions approach.
There’s something to be said, but it’s not anything positive.
This truth came to my attention recently when I figured out my “huh, I should find out more about that but... wait, is that a puppy?” attitude had kept me from many, many years of enjoying chard—the cooking, the growing, the consuming.
Maybe you’ve seen it? That stuff that looks like giant, crinkly spinach leaves unfurled and hot-glued to pencil-thin rhubarb or celery stems? The spinach resemblance could have been my first clue, if I was the “a-ha, let us rev up the Wikipedia and/or call Stanley’s Greenhouse, we’ve spotted an intriguing produce phenomena” type.
I did see something intriguing around two years ago: burly bunches of Rainbow Chard in everyone’s carts at the Three Rivers Market. All the shoppers looked pretty stoked to be taking it home to... what? Had I asked before heading out—I think I got distracted by the Newman-Os with chocolate filling where the white imitation Oreo center should have been—maybe I would have known way back in 2008 you could chop chard up, stalks and all, and gently sauté it in garlic and olive oil. With a squirt of lemon it tastes quite a bit like spinach and garlic, with a little more texture.
I did think about chard after that long enough to conclude it couldn’t possibly grow around here. It’s SWISS chard, chief. My daughter, who was then 15, went to an international peace-inspiring camp in that very country, and came home averse to rice because that’s all she’d eaten for three weeks. Wasn’t that because they couldn’t grow food she liked there, like baby carrots and nectarines, because it was so darn cold and they were so busy hunting elk and eating more meat and herring per capita than anyone else on the globe? If chard grew for the Swiss, I just knew it wouldn’t grow for us.
Only, I was wrong. First about the country where my daughter culture-exchanged, which was Sweden, not Switzerland. The Swedes hold no claim to a namesake chard. And it turns out chard grows about like dandelions in these parts, only not as fast. I know this now because I ate some chard prepared by a friend in Kentucky in just the way described above, and had an epiphany: “This is exquisite spinach taste without squeezing frozen spinach dry with my bare hands or squashing all the taste from pre-washed baby spinach leaves by exposing them to heat. I’ve waited my whole life for this. If only I could grow my own supply so I’d never be without.”
And not two months after that (okay, nine months after that) I remembered to glance at the seeds at Mayo’s Garden Center, and they had chard. Practically a sign from Mother Nature. Any schoolchild can tell you that Mayo’s grows those seeds locally; if they will grow for Mayo’s, they will grow for me. So I planted like 73 of them, in rows, in my brand new raised beds this May. I probably scanned the back of the seed packet, but I couldn’t really tell you what it said about how they grow best. What, is this some sort of quiz? In any case, they thrived without one iota of attention from me.
I just go out there and pick, then make up for lost time by putting chard wherever spinach might have gone before. Chard, broccolini, and feta pasta salad. A little wilted chard on frozen cheese pizza with capers. Maybe, I’m thinking, a chard/artichoke dip; if I can make that happen, I may never cook with spinach again.
But, speaking of spinach: Years ago I was contributing to some victory garden book and the topic of malabar spinach came up. A perennial, vine no less. Not really spinach, but tastes like it. You know, a person might be able to grow that here, too. I’d look it up, but come to think of it, I’ve never seen malabar spinach seeds at Mayo’s.