This week’s recipe is a transitional one. Much like how we will wear a poloneck jumper under a summery shift dress, or pair thick wool tights with strappy sandals (at least here in the UK), today I am using a rather S/S ingredient in a slightly A/W way. When I think of grilled polenta and beans together, my immediate thought is mmm, stew with polenta. Or mmm, a bean and polenta bake. Very wintry, very -5C. What I don’t automatically think is wouldn’t this be nice with stir-fried new season’s chard.
But chard is an early-ish, cooler-weather crop, with more than a hint of hardy wintriness about it – even when young and small of leaf. It is a robust, no nonsense kind of vegetable that stands up to rough winds, cold temps and punchy flavours like no other. I would love to persevere with more adamantly Spring dishes such as last week’s crab one, but we still need the warmth of this sort of dish, combined with the promise of what is to come. For after chard comes asparagus and watercress, then broad beans, beetroot and courgettes. And then the flashier summer crops of tomatoes, artichokes, corn and aubergines, and as many tender herbs as you can ever wish. I am already making haphazard lists and scribblings of the many spring and summer-crop recipes I want to make because, like Little Orphan Annie says, “the sun’ll come out tomorrow.” Crossed fingers.As you will not be surprised to know, while the piquant and light Roquefort sauce, and perhaps the crusty triangles of polenta, will get most diner’s attention, for me chard is the star of this recipe. Not only for its taste and nutrition, but also because it is one of the first crops to battle through the usually frigid British so-called Spring. A relative of beetroot, quinoa, spinach and amaranth, chard is really a delicious fancy weed: Beta vulgaris, subspecies cicla – from the family Chenopodiacae – to be exact. Although, according to this great US website, chard is a year-round crop in the US, the season hasn’t started here in the UK. Heck, I’m not sure if it is even in the ground yet. When it does come I will have to restrain myself from inundating you with chard-centric recipes, for I am nearly as fond of it as the now-ubiquitous kale. But ‘look forward’ to at least a few simple and rustic ones – it doesn’t ‘do’ fancy – featuring this most humble of vegetable. Hopefully they will be a bit prettier than this honest but really delicious dish. I fully acknowledge that masters of light and style such as Heidi or Katie would do a better job, but please look past the dodgy styling and lack of photo editing to see the potential in these wonderful ingredients.
If you have never had chard, think of it as a more robustly structured spinach, with a mild but distinctive mineral tang. It is actually my 16-year old Miss R’s favourite vegetable, having declared last year that she could happily eat it every day. (She has obviously inherited her Mum’s bizarrely strong liking for minerality. Let’s just hope it doesn’t veer straight into French Sancerres. Like her Mum…)
You can always substitute chard for spinach, but where spinach will just disappear to a tenth of its size – or less – when cooked, chard is fantastic for healthily bulking out a dish. Pair it with equally earthy ingredients like lentils, beans, mushrooms, potatoes, quinoa, brown rice, vinegar, pungent herbs or aged cheese. Deborah Madison, in her seminal vegetable primer, Vegetable Literacy, has a number of gorgeous recipes to entice. Her Chard, Ricotta and Saffron Cakes look especially drool-worthy. Here’s a link to it via the California Food Literacy Centre, but do check out/buy the book if you can.
Chard can and does grow wild in places such as Mexico, the Mediterranean and California, but most of what we get is cultivated, either by Joe Public as a sturdy and almost unkillable garden vegetable, or from the markets in leafy piles of green, red or rainbow. I have one winter-hangover specimen of rhubarb chard, old and unlovely with its ruby-red stem, holding firm in the garden. It seems to be thumbing its metaphorical nose at the awful weather by not keeling over, although it really is too bedraggled to eat. For now it has escaped my culling secateurs because it pleases me to see such defiance. But come May I will plant out a fledgling tray of candy-striped rainbow chard, relying on instructions from here (last year I ‘cheated’). Or, failing that, depend on the generosity of my verdant-thumbed neighbour Warwick, who keeps an immaculate allotment and visits regularly with armfuls of beautiful organic vegetables. I mostly use his offerings for dishes I make for the cancer nutrition classes I teach, but extras give a tasty local flavour to things I prepare for the family. Just yesterday he came over with a heavy raffia string of hand-tied onions, fat and sweet. The last of his over-wintered stash so all the more prized.
If you are tempted to make this, please substitute with spinach or kale (to which it is not related) if chard isn’t available. But if you have even some straggly, tough looking specimens, pick out any woody stems and use the remainder here. Chard gives fabulous taste and bite even when not at its best-looking. And of course, if you are vegan, leave out the dairy bits, perhaps squeezing over plenty of lemon, or even tossing through a smidge of dark miso paste. The latter will capture the umami-ish hit of the stipulated Roquefort quite nicely. I’ve included a ‘recipe’ for a vegan sauce.
Even if I am still wearing thick tights and polo necks, and even if the sun is not out tomorrow, a plateful of new season’s vegetables on grilled polenta is just the thing to make me smile. I hope it makes you smile too.
What is making you smile today? (Keep it clean!)
This Week in 2011: GInger-Miso Grain and Vegetable Salad
This Week in 2012: Cauliflower and Almond Pizza Crust with Fresh Tomato Sauce and Greens
Miss R’s Track of the Week: Full Circle by Canadian band, Half Moon Rising (love the tribal feel of the drums)
This is straightforward enough to feature as a healthy, energising midweek meal. If however you balk at the idea of cooking, cooling then grilling polenta of a Wednesday, do just use slices of ready-cooked polenta – usually sold in fat ‘sausages’ with the raw polenta. Or you could even spoon the juicy greens, beans and mushrooms over good bread – like sourdough or ciabatta; or perhaps quinoa or rice. And if chard is not readily available to you yet, or is coming from Spain right now, as is the case for us in the UK with our current rubbish weather, do use spinach (a relative) or kale (which is not). And still a few tweaks to consider are for vegans to use a tablespoon of dark miso in place of the dairy (see below); for omnivores perhaps add or substitute chicken for the beans. My family went crazy for the latter, licking plates clean and all that.
And just to say that if you make the polenta from scratch, I have given measures for more than you need, so perhaps grill the remainder the following day and top with mashed ripe avocado, stir-fried mushrooms with herbs, or scrambled eggs. It also tastes fab with just a drizzle of good honey (truffle honey is magical!).
165g (1 cup) quick-cooking polenta – although I used white maizemeal because I had it
750g (3 ½ cups) water
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp garlic powder (optional)
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp olive oil
75g (1 cup) washed and sliced leeks – tender whites only OR 1 mild onion
Pinch of salt
150g (heaped cup) earthy mushrooms, such as shiitake, portabello or chestnut, chunkily sliced
3 cloves of garlic (I used aged garlic but ‘ordinary’ is best), peeled and sliced
100g (just over 3 cups) washed and sliced chard, including the stems
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves, or ½ tsp dried leaves (more to taste)
1 x 400g (14 oz) tin of white beans, rinsed and drained OR equivalent home-cooked
Juice of half a lemon – optional
3 tbsp low-fat crème fraiche, sour cream or fromage frais
1 heaped tbsp Roquefort or goats’ cheese (more to taste)
1 tsp+ hot water, to loosen
Vegan Alternative: 1 tbsp dark miso paste + ½ tbsp neutral oil + 2 tbsp hot water + squeeze lemon juice
Firstly, make the polenta by bringing the water to the boil with the salt. Pour in the polenta steadily, while whisking with the other hand – this will avoid lumps. If you don’t feel that coordinated – and sometimes I don’t – just pour in and beat like fury until any lumps disappear. Quick-cook polenta will be ready when it is completely absorbed, porridgey and clinging to a wooden spoon: about three minutes. Stir in ½ tbsp of the oil and the garlic powder, then pour into a lightly greased baking sheet so that it is about 2.5 cm (3/4 inch) thick; spread over the remaining oil; put aside to cool and set.
For the vegetable topping, heat the oil in a large sauté pan over a low-medium heat. When the oil is heated, add the sliced leeks; stir-fry for a few minutes, until they become translucent. If you use onions instead, cook on a lower heat, for a longer time, to really make sure they are well-cooked and the raw taste and smell disappears. Now add in the mushrooms and garlic, cooking until the inherent juices are released and nearly evaporated away. Pop in the beans, thyme and the washed and sliced chard – or other greens – stir and cover for five to seven minutes, stirring occasionally. The timing depends on the thickness of the stems; spinach will take less time to wilt. Squeeze over the lemon, if using, and stir in. You may want to add in some freshly ground black pepper; salt too. But maybe wait until you judge how salty the sauce is for you.
While the greens wilt and cook, mix together the sauce ingredients and set aside.
When the polenta is set, slice it into squares or triangles and place under a hot grill, until starting to brown in patches – white polenta/maizemeal won’t really brown. Don’t grill the other side or it may go hard – ugh. You can of course also do this on an oiled stovetop griddle pan, for scorch marks and extra crustiness.
To serve, place 2-3 grilled polenta slices on each plate and spoon over the greens, beans and mushrooms, followed by a good streak of the sauce. Or, you could mix the sauce into the greens mixture and spoon over the polenta.
Serves 2-3 for a light but filling meal, with perhaps some roasted peppers or tomatoes to accompany.
Chard Nutrition: Vitamins A, C, K, E the Bs, as well as magnesium, manganese, potassium, calcium and iron are abundant in chard. And of course it contains loads of cleansing fibre. The key cancer prevention phytochemical group is the betalains, which provide powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and detoxification support.