Monday, September 15, 2008

Passionate: Bright Lights Chard Gratin

As obsessive as I clearly am when I find something I like (please see Exhibit A: Blackberries), I can’t believe I haven’t shared with you my current obsession. I know this may sound a little strange at first, but hear me out. My current love, the food with which I am so taken that I actually planted it in my own garden to ensure an immediate and almost unending supply thereof, is Rainbow Chard.

Right, I know.

Tracy, chard? It looks like some weird weed and it has a name that sounds like the discarded by-product of the cheese making process. What you say is true, but I can’t help it. I’ve fallen and I’ve fallen hard. And work with me here: for once my insatiable love is for something healthy. Oh yes, at this point I’m still in the smother-it-with-white-sauce-and-buttered-crumbs stage of the relationship, but at least I’m not deep frying it. I maintain that the American public can be gently guided to love any food provided that it’s either breaded and deep fried, or smothered in a cheesy white sauce. I mean, really: calamari. I rest my case.

But back to my newfound passion. It started turning up in my CSA share each week, and I thought, what do I do with this? Enter Deborah Madison’s “Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets.” She has a recipe for Bright Lights Chard Gratin. In her introduction she says this recipe is just as good if you use some spinach or other green, plus the chard. Well there you go: I have no fear of spinach. Spinach and I are great pals. If I could get spinach, along with my old friends goat cheese, cream sauce, and bread crumbs, to introduce me to chard, why, I’d be at a party with a whole lot of folks I knew, and only one stranger in the mix. I could ease out of my comfort zone only slightly, and maybe make a new friend.

Since then I’ve eased further and further, and chard and I are now joined at the hip. I bought a packet of seeds and planted it in my garden, and the other night I made an all chard gratin with a combination of my CSA bunch and a fistful plucked from my own crop. It was still slathered in béchamel sauce, but it was all chard, no spinach invited (no offense, spinach; I still love you). I figure one of these days I’ll be brave enough to try a simple sauté, with the stems cooked first, and the leaves added after, all in just a touch of butter with some garlic, salt and pepper. But baby steps for baby feet, and I think my next experiment will be crisp chard cakes on a bed of creamy spinach (recipe in one of my new acquisitions, the Food + Wine 2008 cookbook). Still a chard/spinach combo, and still with the cream sauce and crumbs, but the cream sauce isn't in with the chard, and the spinach is a separate entity altogether. I can hardly wait.

Bright Lights Chard Gratin

from Deborah Madison’s “Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets.”
serves 4 as a main dish; 6 as a side dish; or, if you're me, two days in a row for lunch

2 pounds chard, including half the stems (or an equal amount of greens, such as spinach, nettles or sorrel)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 onion, finely chopped
sea salt, and freshly ground pepper
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
1 clove garlic, minced
3 tablespoons chopped dill or parsley
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup milk, cream, or a mixture of cream and stock
1 cup crumbled fresh goat cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F and lightly oil a 2-quart gratin dish.

Separate the leaves and chard stems. Wash the leaves well, then coarsely chop them. Trim the ragged edges off the stems, wash them well, and dice them into small pieces.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a wide skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and chard stems and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion has begun to brown, about 20 minutes. (Note: I found this took about 5-7 minutes, not 20; maybe my heat was higher. In any event, it shouldn’t be left unattended, because you may find this goes faster than the original recipe says it will.) Add the chard leaves (and any other greens you may be using), sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt, and cook until they’re wilted and tender, about 10 minutes (interestingly, this was about the correct amount of time).

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a small skillet and add the bread crumbs, garlic and dill or parsley. Cook, stirring for about a minute, then scrape the crumbs into a bowl and return the pan to the heat.

Melt the last tablespoon of butter, stir in the flour, then whisk in the milk (I used plain old 2%). Simmer for 5 minutes, season with 1/2 teaspoons salt, and add to the chard mixture. Add the cheese, then taste the mixture, correct for salt, and season with pepper. (Note: I actually added the goat cheese to the white sauce in the pan and whisked it until the cheese was melted, then poured it over the chard mixture. This was successful also.)

Pour the mixture into the prepared dish and cover with the bread crumbs. Bake until heated through and golden on the surface, about 25 minutes. (The sauce will also be bubbling a bit.) Let settle a few minutes before serving.

Eat, and vow to make again as soon as humanly possible!

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