William Skidelsky thinks the versatile Swiss chard underrated

Is any vegetable more underrated than the surprisingly versatile Swiss chard?

Vegetables can be divided into two categories: the overused and the underrated. Members of the first category include potatoes, carrots, spinach and broccoli (and on present form the squash family will soon also belong to this group). Members of the second camp include celery, samphire, radishes and Jerusalem artichokes. However, in my opinion, there is one vegetable that is more underrated than any of these - Swiss chard. Swiss chard is so called not because it is native to Switzerland, but because its scientific name was determined by a 19th-century Swiss botanist called Koch. In fact, the vegetable has been eaten and written about for a lot longer than that, especially in the Mediterranean, its natural home. In ancient times, chard was prized for its medicinal properties - Aristotle sang the praises of the red variety in the 4th century BC.

Today Swiss chard is extremely popular in southern France (particularly in Nice) and in Italy, where it is usually known as bietole. I first became properly aware of it while working many summers ago as a chef at a private house on Elba. My employer grew it in his garden, and with the help of various battered Italian cookbooks I discovered just what a delicious and versatile vegetable it can be.

The great thing about chard is that it is in effect two vegetables in one: the stalks and the leaves should be cooked separately, and have very different characters. The leaves are like a more robust version of spinach, and are best cooked in a similar way - for example, in a hot pan with a couple of splashes of olive oil. Once cooked (and they need only a few minutes), they should be seasoned and drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice, and served. The stalks are closer in texture and flavour to celery. Like celery, they can be used as part of the vegetable base for soups and stews. Or they can be braised: simply put them in a pan with a glass or two of white wine or stock, salt and pepper, garlic and a healthy amount of butter, and cook at barely a tremor for 40 minutes, or until tender.

If you want to be really flash, there's an outrageously delicious recipe for chard stalks I discovered while on Elba that involves cooking them in four different ways. First, blanch them for a couple of minutes in salted water. Then fry them gently in butter with some diced pancetta for about seven minutes, or until the pancetta starts to crisp. Now add a cup of chicken stock, and gently braise the stalks and pancetta together for a further 12 minutes or so (by which time the stock should all but have disappeared). Transfer to a gratin dish. Add salt and pepper, more butter, and copious amounts of grated Parmesan cheese. Bake in a medium-hot oven until golden brown - this will probably take ten minutes - and serve.

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