What to do with all that Swiss Chard?

Swiss chard is one of the easiest vegetables to grow. Here in Austin, it thrives almost year-round and is the last of the leafy greens to die when the summer kicks in in full force. The rainbow and red varieties are also highly ornamental and are ideal for edible landscapes. Still, some people don’t quite know how to use it in the kitchen!

Not the greatest photo, but you get the idea. Here, 'Bright Lights' (rainbow) and 'Ruby Red' Swiss chard surround my Meyer lemon tree.

With all the rain we had a few weeks ago, my chard just went crazy, so we have been using it a lot. It has found its way, stalks and all, into the veggie juices we make on weekends. I made a white bean and chard soup a couple weeks back that turned out delicious. I also make a simple salad by shredding the leaves finely, then tossing with lemon or lime juice, a splash of soy sauce and a drizzle of olive oil. The stalks are wonderful in their own right, with their crunchy texture and a tangy flavor similar to rhubarb. Inspired by a fabulous braised celery  dish I had at Foreign & Domestic, I peeled the stalks to remove as much of the fibers as possible, then sauteed them with garlic until just translucent and added chicken stock and salt. I braised them until they were almost melted. They were spectacular!

Rainbow chard stalks, ready for braising
The delicious final product

As temperatures rise, the chard is starting to wane so it needs to be picked and eaten soon to make way for more eggplant and chile plants. So last night, I made my favorite chard dish of the year which was inspired by my mom, who loves Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. Talking to her on the phone one day, she told me how she stuffs the leaves with a picadillo of ground lamb and beef mixed with cooked rice and seasoned with garlic, pepper, oregano and thyme, then serves them covered in a tomato sauce. I did a mix of lamb and beef to make it more economic and used brown rice that I had in the pantry for its nutty flavor and firmer texture. For the seasoning I used Zatar, which my friend Rae had brought back from her trip to Israel, and made my basic tomato broth simmered with a few sprigs of fresh mint. They turned out so good that they’ve joined the regular menu rotation. It’s a simple, economic and healthy recipe. Here is a step by step guide:

Take four to six large Swiss chard leaves. Cut off stem and reserve for another use. Cut out the rib from the middle. Blanch the leaves briefly in salted boiling water, drain and let dry a bit.
Make the stuffing by browning a pound of ground meat of your choice with some garlic and chopped onion. Add a cup of cooked rice (or barley, quinoa, couscous, etc.) and season to taste. Place a portion of filling in the center of the leaf, making sure the sides overlap in the middle so the stiffing doesn't fall out.
chard roll
Fold in sides to cover filling, then carefully roll to seal. Repeat with all leaves and filling. Steam the chard rolls until filling is heated through and leaves are tender, about 8 minutes on the electric steamer.
Make the tomato broth by blending tomatoes (canned ok) with onion and garlic. Add a little oil to a heavy pan and fry the puree until it changes color and reduces a bit. Add salt and pepper to taste and a sprig or two of fresh mint or cilantro. Add water to thin it out to desired texture and bring to a boil. Simmer until well seasoned.
Serve the rolls drenched in the tomato broth.
This is a very appropriate wine to serve with them. Enjoy!



Artichokes are very sculptural plants that add lots of visual appeal in the garden.

I had never grown artichokes before, so the whole process was new this year. Even though I planted last year, the plant never reached maturity until this spring. It grew huge and beautiful, and at one point there were 12 artichokes on it!

I was eager to try new recipes with them, inspired by a Facebook posting from my friend and fellow writer Kristi Willis from Kristi’s Farm to Table, in which she asked what are the most intimidating vegetables. I was determined to not be intimidated by artichokes any longer, especially having so many to experiment with  instead of having to pay $3.50 a piece at the store. I had a couple of recipes from Lidia Bastianich, including one for a thinly sliced, raw artichoke salad that intrigued me. Unfortunately, I tended to harvest them too late, once they were too big and tough to eat. Next year I’ll be more vigilant to harvest when they are small and tender. This summer I also planted  an Italian purple variety that I am excited to see grow next season!

This one here was almost perfect:

Beautiful Green Globe artichoke!

But I decided that rather than experiment, I would go for a sure bet. I steamed it in the electric steamer for about 10 minutes, then served it like my mom does, with herb vinaigrette for dipping.  I also drew some butter at Will’s request:

Steamed until tender, we ate this beauty as an appetizer with herb vinaigrette and drawn butter for dipping.

I also steamed the last few of the season, but actually processed the. I discarded all leaves, quartered the hearts and tossed them in a salad with the last of our garden lettuce and spinach and a lemon vinaigrette.

The ones that got too big before I could harvest were left alone to do their thing, which I love. Artichoke blooms have got to be amongst the most interesting in the garden! Thy have a certain alien quality to them, don’t they?

Here is a good example of the before and after.
Here is a close-up of the bloom. Outstanding, isn't it?

Mima’s Recipes ~ tortitas de coliflor

The last of the garden cauliflowers was on the menu last night. Because I picked it a bit late, it was not a pretty white head but a scraggly thing with light green stems. Who cares what it looks like, I thought – it is still a cauliflower. So I decided to use it in an inexpensive, nutritious and delicious classic of Mexican home cooking – tortitas de coliflor. Although it takes a few steps, the recipe is quite straight forward, and I believe even your kids will dig it. I know I did when my mom made it when I was a kid.

Tortitas de coliflor are a simple but delicious classic of Mexican homecooking.

Tortitas, meaning patties or fritters, can be made with a number of veggies, and are a popular alternative to meat dishes during Lent or when the budget is lean.  Tortitas are a staple of the frugal Mexican kitchen. They are usually served swimming in a thin sauce or broth. Check out this recipe for another tortita alternative with Prehispanic Central Mexican roots.

For this recipe, the cauliflower is usually boiled, but yesterday was hot and humid and I didn’t want the stove on for long so I steamed it in my electric steamer, then chopped it into small pieces. You will recognize the batter technique, known in Mexico as rebozar, if you’ve ever eaten a chile relleno in a restaurant. In Mexico, this egg batter is used not only for chile rellenos but for a variety of vegetables like calabacitas, and it is commonly used for frying fish fillets.

Tortitas de coliflor

1 cauliflower, cut into small florets
1/2 cup flour
3 eggs
Vegetable oil for frying, as needed

For the tomato broth:
2 cups chopped tomatoes (fresh is best but canned will do)
1/4 medium white onion, roughly chopped
2-3 garlic cloves
1 chile serrano or chipotle in adobo (optional)
Salt to taste
2 cups water or vegetable broth

Cook the cauliflower until fork tender, either boiling or steaming. Meanwhile, separate eggs and beat whites to small peaks; add the yolks carefully, just folding in rather than beating. Place cauliflower bits in a large bowl and toss with flour to coat completely. Pour beaten eggs over it and gently toss to cover completely.

Add the mixture by the spoonful to the hot oil and fry until golden on both sides.

Heat oil in a frying pan and drop large spoonfuls of the cauliflower mixture. Fry until it starts to brown, then turn over and fry until golden brown  on both sides. Drain on paper towels.

Prepare the basic tomato broth: blend the tomatoes, onion, garlic, and chile in the blender. Add salt to taste. Fry with a tablespoon of oil in a heavy saucepan, stirring occasionally, until it reduces a bit and is well seasoned. Add the water, lower the heat and simmer on low. Place the tortitas in the hot tomato broth and simmer for a few minutes so they absorb some broth and remain heated through.

Drain tortitas on paper towels before adding to the broth

These are awesome served with a basic Mexican white rice:

1 cup white rice
2 cloves garlic, sliced in half
1/4 withe onion, thick sliced
1 T vegetable oil
2 cups water or broth (chicken or veggie)
Salt to taste
1 sprig cilantro or Italian parsley, optional
1/2 c frozen peas and carrots, optional

Rinse the rice under cold running water until rinse water comes out clear; drain well. Heat oil in a saucepan with a lid and fry onion and garlic until fragrant and translucent. Add rice and fry, stirring, until rice becomes opaque. Add broth and salt and bring to a boil; lower heat to low, cover, and cook for about 1o minutes. Before it dries completely, add cilantro or parsley sprig and peas and carrots, if using. Cover and cook 5 more minutes or until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender.

What to drink? How about an inexpensive rose vinho verde, to continue the frugal theme!


Spring in the garden show-and-tell

Spring sprung in the garden early this year, thanks to an incredibly mild winter and all the glorious rain we’ve enjoyed lately in Central Texas.  Things are looking good – with a few minor setbacks. This weekend we plant tomatoes, peppers and eggplant-  a bit late because of SXSW.

Massively blooming sage next to the huge artichoke, with the sweet pea tower in the back. The sage blossoms are attracting dozens of bees. Hurray pollinators!
The potatoes are doing fantastic. In the foreground is Red Pontiac, with All Blue and Austrian Crescent right behind, and two Desiree in the very back. I am so excited for all of these! This weekend we are adding more soil to cover most of the plants so they produce more roots and hence more tubers.
The artichoke has three chokes going. This one is ready to harvest, and we will eat it on Friday as an appetizer, steamed and served with a vinaigrette like my mom does.
There is a mass of cilantro volunteers growing on the gravel path, from when I harvested the mature seed heads to save coriander seeds. Many fell on the ground, and thanks to the rain, they are thriving. I have been pulling whole little plants to cook with, including some cilantro pesto I used atop pan-seared barramundi fillets over the weekend. To the left, in the garden bed, is the spearmint. Mojito season is upon us!
The biggest disappointment: all the Tuscan kale I planted to become part of Resolution Gardens was devoured by the great snail invasion of 2012 and bolted early due to warm weather. No freezing temps and so much rain have contributed to this massive influx of slimy critters. I despise them. The only way to get rid of them is to hand pick them which, much to my horror, I will have to do this week in order to save some of the Swiss chard which is also affected. UGH.
Sweet pea blooms
After all the rains, the sweet peas took off and are blooming profusely. they smell amazing. Right now they are growing in pots inside the metal tower structure, but we are getting ready to build a permanent bed under it to plant climbing beans.

Late winter in the garden and table

Swiss chard, red and green kale, all doing wonderfully right now!

Austin weather…what can we say? One day it’s 75 degrees and sunny, the next it’s snowing. The plants are so confused, and gardeners start getting spring fevered a bit too early. Last weekend at the Natural Gardener I saw people buying tomato seedlings! Me, I am patient. My tomatoes never go in the ground until at least St. Patrick’s Day. But Valentine’s Day is another story: it’s the day when I plant potatoes.

After my failed container experiment of last year, I saved a large section of garden to plant four varieties I found at Natural Gardener that weekend. I have previously grown Red Pontiac with success, so I planted that again. But I also wanted some new things, so I got Desiree, labeled as a popular gourmet potato in Europe.  This from Seed Savers Exchange: red-skinned mid-season variety introduced from Holland in 1962. Deep golden flesh with moist creamy texture, delicate flavor. Good disease resistance, very reliable and easy to grow. An excellent choice for a general cooking potato. 95-100 days.

I also planted All Blue and Austrian Crescent, both of which failed in the containers last year. This time I am doing it right and I hope I’ll have a good harvest of various potatoes. Really, homegrown potatoes are as satisfying as tomatoes.

This weekend I will also reseed my beds. I am not sure if they got washed away with the rain, or if the dogs had something to do with it, but my seeds for carrots, beets, radishes, arugula, spinach, and kohlrabi have not sprouted after 2 weeks. I am disappointed, now I am almost three weeks behind on these and with the weather around here it may be too late for some of them, like the kohlrabi. But the fennel I grew in a large pot did very well, and last night I harvested a beautiful large bulb:

Beautiful, big fennel from the garden!

I bought some radishes and beets at the Sunset Valley Farmer’s Market from my friend Gary Rowland from Hairston Creek Farm, so last night I made this winter salad which was a great hit. The colors are beautiful and, dare I say, very Valentine’s.

Beautiful and delicious winter salad of Chioggia beets, black radish, garden fennel and parsley, and Rio grapefruit

Winter salad of beet, radish, fennel, and grapefruit
2 servings

1 large Chioggia (aka candy stripe) beet
1/2 large fennel bulb
1 medium or half a large black radish
1/2 Rio grapefruit
Juice of half a lemon
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and pepper to taste

Wash veggies well with a veggie scrubber if necessary. Slice very thinly with a mandolin and combine in large bowl. Peel the grapefruit with a sharp knife, removing all white pith. Over the bowl, cut out segments from the membrane (aka supremes) and add them to bowl, letting any extra juice drip onto the veggies. Add the lemon juice, salt and pepper, and toss. Let it sit for a few minutes. Just before serving add olive oil and toss. Garnish with chopped fresh parsley.