By Analiese Paik
This is the first in a series of articles about cooking with cast-offs, the edible vegetable parts we commonly throw away.
As I slip vegetable scraps into the stainless steel compost bin in my kitchen each day, I often wonder how much could be eaten instead. Are those celery fronds tasty? Are broccoli leaves edible? Will Swiss chard stems add to my dish or ruin it?
Many rarely used plant parts are both perfectly safe to eat and quite delicious when prepared properly. But can we really learn to love the whole vegetable? What will it take to convert eaters who turn their noses up at Swiss chard and broccoli stems and beet and radish greens?
It’s easy to argue that eating cast offs is a partial antidote to our country’s enormous food waste problem and will stretch the family food budget, but such reasoning alone is unlikely to inspire cooks and eaters to try something so radically different. I’m betting that a few delicious recipes possess that transformative power.
When I think of Swiss chard stems, a part of the plant commonly considered waste, I vaguely remember my Sicilian grandmother telling me “You know you can put them in the tomato sauce and they’ll cook nicely.” Why haven’t I ever tried that? I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve cooked Swiss chard stems and I never tried to cook them in tomato sauce. Why did I ignore my grandmother’s cooking wisdom? The answer that comes to mind is a pathetic one – nobody’s serving Swiss chard stems on their menus or publishing recipes about them so they must not be delicious or easy to work with. This logic is flawed and I plan to make amends. If we can be mindful about eating whole animals, why not whole vegetables?
The day I decided to make something delicious with the Swiss chard stems I had put aside, waiting for a moment of inspiration, I found a small amount of leftover homemade tomato sauce in the refrigerator. As I cut the stems and ribs into even sizes (a basic skill taught in cooking school that ensures even cooking), I planned the rest of the recipe in my head: add my leftover tomato sauce, a few glugs of excellent olive oil, some salt and top it with Parmigano Reggiano. I figured there was no going wrong with those ingredients.
My most cherished au gratin dish, a milk-white porcelain Apilco, became my cooking vessel of choice because I know presentation influences eating behavior. I debated using parchment to cover the dish, but chose aluminum foil instead because the stems and ribs were piled high and I didn’t want to risk it drying out. I baked the dish at 400 degrees, checking every 20 minutes for tenderness. It took a full hour for the Swiss chard to collapse and the dish to come together beautifully. The bulky, tough stems were now a fraction of their original size and glistened invitingly.
After letting the dish cool for few minutes, my husband and I had a bite and both declared “good!” I knew this simple yet delicious recipe was a keeper. The next day we enjoyed the Swiss chard au gratin as a side dish and no noses turned up. Remarkably, the kids preferred them to the carrots I had also prepared. This successful experiment was the only inspiration I needed to continue my adventures in cast-off cooking.
Swiss Chard Stems Au Gratin
- Stems and tough ribs from 2 bunches of Swiss chard, preferably organic
- ¼ cup tomato sauce, preferably homemade
- 3-4 tablespoons of excellent extra virgin olive oil
- 2-3 tablespoons of freshly grated Parmigano Reggiano
- Salt to taste
Serves: 4 as a side dish.
Time: 10 minutes to prepare, 1 hour to cook
- Wash Swiss chard stems and ribs thoroughly until no grit appears in the bottom of the bowl or sink.
- Cut the stems in half lengthwise. Cut the ribs into 4-6 inch lengths, to match the length of the stems. The goal is to have the ribs and stems approximately even in length and width to ensure even cooking.
- Place the prepared chard stems and ribs in a gratin dish large enough to hold them. It’s okay if they’re piled high.
- Spoon the sauce over the stems and ribs, pour the olive oil on top, sprinkle with good sea salt, and give everything a few turns with a pair of tongs until the Swiss chard is well coated. You can certainly do the mixing in a bowl, but then you’d have something else to clean!
- Sprinkle the grated cheese on top and cover with aluminum foil, being careful not to press the foil onto the cheese.
- Bake at 400 degrees until the Swiss chard is tender and collapsed, about an hour. Start checking every 10 minutes after 50 minutes of cooking. The chard will have shrunken considerably.
- If you’d like, put the gratin dish under the broiler just before serving to turn the cheese golden, making it a true au gratin. Serve in the baking dish.