Some squeaky-fresh chard arrived in the vegetable box yesterday. It was multicoloured: green of course, and purple, crimson and yellow. Someone should have painted it before we ate it.
I suppose that a very simple preparation, involving a speedy cooking, would have flattered the freshness best. But it is hard to resist returning to old favourites; and I am particularly keen on chard gratins.
You can eat both the leaves and the stalks (the stalks are more highly valued); but they require different cooking times. I washed the chard in a bowl, folding the halves of each leaf together and stripping them from the stalk. I cut the stalks into lengths of about 2 cm, and put them into a saucepan with a layer (about 1.5 cm) of simmering water and a knob of butter. I put the lid on. After about 10 minutes, I removed the lid, turned up the heat, and allowed the liquid to evaporate until the stalks were covered in thin, buttery juices.
Meanwhile, I cooked the chard leaves as I do spinach: I shoved the wet leaves in a saucepan, clamped on the lid, and put the pan above a high heat. After a couple of minutes, I took off the lid and stirred the collapsing leaves. I put the lid back on for another minute, then drained the chard, pushing down on the leaves with a wooden spoon to squeeze out the liquid.
There was a decent-sized portion for two. I made a bechamel with a third of a pint (about 190 ml) of milk. (There is a recipe for bechamel, albeit a double-thick one, in my entry on Alsace Onion Tart.) I stirred in about four tbsps of grated pecorino cheese. Then I stirred in the chard leaves and stalks, and added a little salt (the pecorino is salty), a lot of black pepper, and some scrapings of nutmeg. I tipped the mixture into a gratin dish, and put it into a very hot (gas mark 8, 230 C) oven for about seven minutes, by which time it was bubbling.
That was long enough. You can wait until the surface of the gratin goes brown: but that means a longer cooking of (and greater loss of nutrients from) the chard, as well as a drying up of the sauce.
I might have given the gratin a topping of breadcrumbs, or of parmesan, or of breadcrumbs and parmesan mixed, and finished it with a browning under the grill. Sometimes I leave out the bechamel, simply giving the chard a breadcrumb and parmesan crust.