Two summer superfoods: beets and chard
Once upon a time, beets were lonely outcasts, humble and reviled. Swiss chard was unknown. But times have changed.
Today, these two veggies are considered superfoods. The number of beet and chard dishes on restaurant menus keeps rising.
Chard and beet greens are botanical cousins — and chard is often called the rootless beet. Both boast large, fan-like leaves with red veins or ribs running through them. Chard’s celery-like stalks are long, thick, crunchy, and come in vibrant colors of red, yellow, white and green. It is often grown as an ornamental for its large, bright foliage. Beet stems are thinner, and bright red in color (like the roots). Both can be used in cooking, braised or sautéed, although the stalks take longer to cook than the tender leaves.
Colorful beet greens and Swiss chard are hailed as superfoods. Their vibrant red hues come from anthocyanins, betalains, powerful antioxidants, flavonoids and other important phytonutrients which help prevent cancer and degenerative diseases.
Like most greens, they’re low in calories — both chard and beet greens contain just 19 calories per half a cup. And they’re rich in vitamins and minerals: potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamins A, B and C, K and fiber. Magnesium is known for its ability to decrease insulin resistance, so can help prevent the onset of Type 2 diabetes. Studies show beet greens may suppress nicotine cravings, helping smokers quit, and chard’s unique combination of nutrients is effective in preventing digestive tract cancers.
Both beets and chard are native to the Mediterranean basin, where the greens have been eaten since prehistoric times. Both Greeks and Romans cultivated them, honoring their medicinal qualities; we know this from Aristotle’s writings in the fourth century B.C. Because they do well in cool climates with sandy soils, they became popular in central and eastern Europe — and are well suited to our northern Adirondack weather and short growing season.
Although Romans were the first to cultivate beets, it was French chefs in the 1800s who promoted this sweet delicacy. The greens have not experienced the same surge in popularity as the roots, and so are still relatively unknown outside of African-American communities. In fact, many recipes for cooked beets instruct you to discard the greens — if the supermarket hasn’t already done it for you. That is unfortunate, as they are delicious as well as healthy.
Chard and beet greens both have great flavor and a sturdy texture. Look for greens that are fresh, young, and tender; beet greens should have small baby beets attached and chard should have long, crisp stems. The leaves should be dark-green with rich red veins and fairly long, upright stalks. Avoid any with wilted, yellowing leaves or slimy patches.
Like all greens, they deteriorate quickly, so eat as soon as possible after purchase. Store them unwashed in the refrigerator, and wash in several changes of water prior to use to remove clinging sand. Do this by immersing cut up greens in a bucket of cool water, swirling them around to remove the dirt, and scooping the leaves from the top (the sand sinks to the bottom and the leaves float upwards). Rinse stalks under running water to remove dirt, cut off the end, and slice in pieces.
One pound of greens will yield about 4-5 cups when shredded for a salad but less than two cups when cooked.
Both vegetables can be sauteed, braised, even juiced. You can use both stems and leaves in stir-fries, casseroles and soups, adding the stems a bit earlier. Both stems and greens are great mixed into pasta or grain dishes, seasoned with garlic, olive oil or butter, and lemon juice or mild vinegar (like cider or balsamic). When mature, Swiss chard leaves are quite large; use lightly steamed greens in place of cabbage to wrap grain, vegetables or meat as you would stuffed cabbage. Young, tender greens are great in salads; mature greens are best in cooked dishes and soups. The stems of chard and the bright red stems of beets are great braised or stir-fried and pair well with strong seasonings like garlic, ham, or chilies. The greens can be cooked like spinach and are delicious in egg dishes like frittatas, quiche and omelets.
Beet or Chard Skillet with Lentils
This recipe has a lot of variations; use it only as a general guide. You can make it meatless. You can omit lentils and add more meat. You can even use beef in place of the pork sausage or ham. Use your imagination and play around.
1/2 cup lentils
1/2 teaspoon salt
A little oil or fat for the pan — or render fat from a strip or two of bacon
1/4 lb. sausage, optional
4 oz. mushrooms, sliced
3 – 4 garlic scapes, or 1 – 2 cloves garlic
1 bunch beet greens or Swiss chard
1 cup applesauce or 1 – 2 apples
2 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar
In small saucepan, cook lentils in 1 cup salted water until lentils are soft and liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes. Set aside.
While lentils cook, brown sausage (if using) in a large skillet over medium heat.(For a vegetarian dish, heat oil). Lower heat, add onion, then mushrooms, then scapes or garlic and continue cooking about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until sausage is brown and vegetables have softened.
Wash greens thoroughly to remove sand. Slice stems in 1 inch lengths and add to skillet. Cover and let cook 5 – 10 minutes. Chop greens coarsely and add, along with reserved lentils. (ff it begins to stick, add apple cider, broth or water). Cover and cook just until wilted, 3 – 5 minutes. Stir in applesauce. Remove from heat and stir in cider vinegar. Serve over pasta or grain, or with a side of boiled potatoes.
Replace cooked lentils with a can of beans, drained
Omit sausage and add diced ham at the end
For a vegetarian dish omit meat and stir in 1/2 cup shredded sharp Cheddar at the end
Beet Greens (or Chard) & Barley Salad
3 small beets, with greens (or 1 bunch chard)
1 cup barley
Salt & pepper
2 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 small garlic clove
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon prepared mustard (maple mustard or honey mustard works well)
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup apple cider or orange juice
For the salad:
1/2 cup walnut pieces
2 Tablespoons crumbled feta cheese
2 Tablespoons fresh minced chives
1 Tablespoon fresh minced parsley
1 Tablespoon fresh minced tarragon
1 apple, cored and diced OR 1 orange, peeled, seeded and separated into segments
Cook barley according to package directions. Set aside.
Separate beets from greens. Scrub beets and roast or boil until just fork-tender. Wash greens and chop coarsely; set aside. Wash stems and slice thin, like celery. If you want to soften them, cook briefly (5 minutes) in a tablespoon of oil, sprinkled with a little salt.
While barley and beets are cooking, make the vinaigrette dressing. Crush garlic with salt in a mortar. In bottom of salad bowl, whisk together the crushed garlic, vinegar, mustard oil and fruit juice. Stir in the stems and greens and allow to marinate in the dressing until barley and beets are done cooking. Stir in the cooked barley. Peel the beets, dice, and add. Stir in the herbs, feta, walnuts and diced apple or orange segments.
Toss together, and serve at room temperature. Garnish with additional cheese & walnuts, if desired.
Option: substitute barley with another grain, like quinoa or brown rice.
Author of the award-winning cookbook Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market, Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook as Author Yvona Fast.