I’ve been indulging in rather rude behavior as of late. Not general impoliteness, mind you, but rather rudeness of a very specific sort. It goes something like this: E and I will be walking somewhere along the streets of New York and he’ll be telling me something and then, without warning, I’ll just meander away, mid-sentence.
It started with a pair of ruby patent heels sitting pretty in the window of a boutique on a tree-lined street on the Upper West Side. Then it was the faux leopard coat with a ’50s blue lining that practically leapt out at me while E was mulling over what to wear to our wedding. And lately, just about every single Saturday morning as we stroll along Union Square greenmarket, it’s the crates of rakishly handsome rainbow Swiss chard that call out to me.
Although the leaves are lovely with their frilly edges and streaks of color, it’s their stems that undo me. Just look at them. They’re a distillation of the hue that pulses through each leaf. The true essence of the plant. Some stalks are mostly white streaked with hints of color, others are saturated through and through. There’s palest yellow, fire-engine red, a pink-tinged amethyst of sorts that seems to be nature’s answer to hot pink, and even, on occasion, a curiously two-toned stem that ostentatiously flaunts burnt sienna on one side, a slightly more psychedelic shade of the same on the flip. Each color along the progression has a flavor gradient to match, from pleasantly bland to pleasantly earthy. There are those that are a little rich, others that are almost unpalatably bitter. On a good day, the paler ones are sweet as candy. And there are always surprises. You can make an educated guess, but you never truly know what you’re going to get until you taste it.
That nature can will into existence something at once so stunning, something of such uncommon elegance, baffles me. I think this is clear to anyone who has witnessed me standing there, lingering. While these moments may be an exercise in frustration for E, they’re one of restraint for me. As no two bunches are alike, I’m left to discern whether I’m in the mood for crimson chard as opposed to mustard yellow, or a more uncharacteristic plain green chard than any shade of orange, when really I’m coveting them all. I inevitably end up buying both bouquets. Why not? At $2.50 a bunch, it’s a far more affordable fetish than anything I covet for my closet.
What to do with the abundance of chard that tends to accumulate in my fridge depends on the season. Throughout summer and early autumn I mostly just chop the jewel-tone leaves and stems and toss them with salads, lending sturdiness to an otherwise delicate mix of mache, mizuna, tat soi, herbs, and perhaps a few edible petals. Some nights I can’t even be bothered to do that, instead drizzling the leaves and stems with indecent amounts of olive oil in front of god and E and everyone. Untouched by heat, the vibrant greens, deep crimsons and mustard yellows remain vibrant rather than fade. And unlike most vegetables’ one-dimensional nature, chard possesses an uncanny contrast between tender leaves and the divine crunch of those lovely stems.
Come cooler weather, these parchment-like leaves’ days are numbered. What we’re left with is incomparably bland and predictable bunches in grocery stores trucked in from lord knows where. They may still beckon, at least at first glance, but they’re no replacement for local chard. They’re a proxy. As such, they require a little easing into. So I rely on a technique I took up years ago. Quite simply, I roast the Swiss chard. In the oven. It’s not as daring as it sounds, and works well whether you wish to take the edge off the rawness or turn them brittle and pleasantly bitter.
I’ve also toyed with more traditional treatments for chard. They, too, can be lovely, like the one with the boozy plumped raisins and toasted pine nuts (though I confess to preferring walnuts in place of the pine nuts). That’s the beauty of chard—or at least, a small part of it. So versatile. And who am I—or anyone— to say what’s right or wrong? Though I am working on that politeness thing.
Photo © 2010 looseends. All rights reserved.