Choice, Freedom & Swiss Chard

Things have been quiet, I realize. A small setback beset my boxes. The farm stopped London deliveries last September. I never really understood why, no explanation was given but they had their reasons, obviously.

So I experienced the three stages of box withdrawl: 1) Despair 2) A book contract which took over life and food preparation and everything else until early in the New Year, so a form of denial 3) Back to the supermarket, for EVERYTHING. Despair again.

IMG_0954In some ways the hiatus was helpful because, like the song says, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Even if you think you do know.  The biggest surprise was that I actually had to decide what to buy. This was not expected. It was as if the ability-to-select part of my brain had shrivelled up in the interim. When you can buy anything, which is what the fruit and veg section of the supermarket suddenly looked like to me, what do you buy?

The point I’m trying to make is that while farm boxes may appear to be harder to cook from, they are actually easier. They take away the burden of choice, which is such a responsibility. Deciding what to make for dinner is just one more task, one even I can do without. What happened when the boxes stopped was that cooking became less inventive, more repetitive and far more of a chore than it had been with weekly deliveries. So, in the absence of any studies on the impact of farmboxes on food preparation and consumption patterns, you’ll just have to take my word for it. Life, and dinner, are better with the boxes.

Which reminds me of something learned on my MSc course: The health of the nation was at its best during rationing. Not a place people want to go back to for obvious reasons, but worth thinking about next time you go to the supermarket. Miles of aisles and freedom of choice have downsides.

(If you do want to read some studies, here is one related to obesity reduction and restricted food choice.)

IMG_0949So to celebrate the return of the box, which now comes from the lovely folks at Riverford, here is an idea for Swiss Chard, which I have been getting with much regularity. It is also some of the most beautiful Swiss Chard I’ve ever seen and what is especially nice is that it comes with the root end intact, not sliced off and bunched together with string. It seems to last a bit longer when left intact, in my opinion.

To prepare, you need to separate the wide white stem from the green leafy bit. So trim away the root end, wash the leaves and dry, either in a salad spinner or pat dry with a clean tea towel. You can also do this after you trim.

Working one leaf at a time, and using a sharp knife, trim out the white part. What you should have at the end is a pile of white stems and a pile of green leaves. Here is a nice step-by-step photo illustration (with some recipe suggestions at the bottom of the page too). The reason you need to separate the white and green bits is that they cook at different rates.

There are several ways to do this. If you are going to serve the chard as a simple vegetable, you can just blanch and/or wilt. I explain how to do this for Kale, here. The difference with chard is you begin by blanching the white part, thinly sliced, then, after a few minutes, add the green, also thinly sliced and they can finish cooking together. The white part needs a 3-4 minute head-start since it takes longer to cook.

Also, the white part of the chard tends to go a bit grey when cut and exposed to air. I learned to cook chard in France and there it was prepared with a blanc, (water, flour and lemon juice) instead of just plain water to keep it white. I cannot be bothered anymore, I was younger when I lived in France. If you are interested in vintage vegetable preparation techniques, there is, according to internet legend, a video of Jacques Pepin and Julia Child making a blanc for vegetable cooking and it is surely entertaining but, outside the US, there is no access, to that episode at least. You can watch some here, but nothing to do with chard.

The recipe I chose ignores the blanc business and comes from Paula Wolfert’s Good Food from Morocco. She calls it a Tagine of Swiss Chard, which I translate roughly as Braised Swiss Chard with Rice and Coriander. Unusually, I did very little that was different from her recipe, other than halving the quantity and changing the technique slightly but it was still plenty for 4.

In very laid-back tagine style, everything is just bunged in the pan and simmered without any browning so this is exotic and easy. She recommends serving with boiled lentils, as they do in Tetuan, which is a must if you intend it as a Main. I would also add some nice flatbread and lemon wedges for serving, as done in London N10. Aside from being delicious, the appeal is not affected by the discolouring of the chard whites. Blissfully simple and incredibly good. Last word: be generous with the pepper.

Marak Silk (Swiss Chard Tagine)

Serves 4

1 large Swiss Chard (about 580 g), leaves and stems very finely chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
Small bunch fresh coriander, finely chopped
2-4 TBSP oil, such as rapeseed or sunflower
1/2 tsp paprika
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
20 g long grain rice

In a large shallow casserole with a tight fitting lid, combine the Swiss chard, onion, coriander, 2 TBSP of the oil, paprika and a good dose of salt and pepper. Cook, covered, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes. Watch the liquid level and add a bit more water as required; it needs just enough to stay moist and prevent burning, but you do not want a soup.

Meanwhile, prepare a round of baking parchment to fit the diameter of the pan.

After 20 minutes, stir in the rice and a few more TBSP water. Cover with the parchment circle, then return the lid and simmer gently until the rice is tender, about 20 minutes more. Keep an eye on the liquid and top up as necessary as before, stirring it in to help prevent burning as well. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Serve warm, with lemon wedges.

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