Garden fresh chard has a sweet clean flavor I really relish. Chard can be prepared quickly, and both the crunchy succulent stalks and rich green leaves are great eating. For a quick meal, chop chard in 1 inch pieces and sauté in a little olive oil for a few minutes, then add a little chicken or vegetable broth and braise until tender. Finish with a splash of fresh lemon juice or drizzle of balsamic vinegar.
Chard is wonderful in homemade chicken soup made with carrots and onions, and is traditional in minestrone soup. I often use layers of chard in a quickly assembled lasagna. One of my favorite main courses in spring is a big platter of stuffed chard leaves - just dip the big leaves in hot water to soften them first, then fill with your favorite cheese or meat filling (like those you'd use to stuff ravioli) and poach these plump rolls in a little chicken broth. Or use steamed seasoned chard as a bed for poached eggs for brunch or to accompany thick slices of grilled ham.
Spinach Is Special
If you love fresh spinach salad, early spring is the perfect time to grow the best leaves – crispy, thick and sweet tasting with no metallic overtones. Just sow the seeds in a well-worked fertile soil. Be sure to firm the soil well over the seeds to ensure good contact and if the first sowing germinates unevenly, plant more seeds as they'll catch up fast in spring weather. You can eat the tender young seedlings in salads as you thin out your spinach patch when plants are a few inches tall. As plants become established in 40-50 days, just snip off the bigger outer leaves, leaving at least 4 or 5 younger center leaves so plants will continue to produce. Water and fertilize after harvesting and you'll have 2 or 3 pickings before the weather gets too warm and plants respond by beginning to go to seed. Pull and discard at this stage. (You can plant spinach again in late summer as days begin to cool down for a fall crop.)
Garden fresh spinach lends itself to lots of great salads. I love to add fresh orange slices and grilled chicken or beef strips to a bowl of spinach leaves for a whole meal salad. Or try a traditional wilted spinach salad with a sweet and sour hot bacon dressing. Go oriental with a dressing made with a little fresh grated ginger and garlic, chopped scallions, soy sauce, peanut oil and a touch of sesame oil. I often mix baby spinach leaves half and half with spring baby lettuce leaves to add both color and flavor to everyday salads.
To cook garden grown spring spinach, wash it well in several rinses of cool water, then steam it gently in just the water that clings to the leaves. With fresh spinach, this takes only a few minutes as the tender leaves soften with only brief heating. Meltingly delicious, delicately flavored steamed young spinach needs only a knob of sweet butter to season it to perfection. To really celebrate its taste, make a festive spinach soufflé or spinach omelet.
If you enjoy robust flavors with a lot of spirit, join me in growing a crop of broccoli raab this spring. Also known as "cima di rapa" or "rapini," this rich tasting Italian vegetable is a fast growing early spring bonanza. Broccoli raab plants produce flavorful leaves and tender juicy stalks topped with buds that look like tiny broccoli florets. Both leaves and stalks have a fine robust flavor, somewhat like broccoli but more hearty and spicy.
Broccoli Raab is planted in cool spring weather about the time you sow radishes. It likes a rich, well-drained soil in full sun. Young seedlings should be thinned until plants stand about 4 to 6 inches apart to grow their tasty flowering shoots. Harvest by cutting off these leafy stalks at 7-8 inches tall. Then fertilize well to get a second harvest a few weeks later.
Vitamin rich, deep green broccoli raab is wonderful prepared in the traditional Italian manner. First, blanch it quickly in a boiling water bath for a minute or two, then drain. Heat a little fruity olive oil and a generous amount of chopped garlic and add the broccoli raab. Sauté, stirring, just until tender about 5-6 minutes. Serve by itself, or toss with hot pasta and top with freshly grated hard cheese like Asiago or Parmesan. Or serve as a zesty side dish with grilled sausages for a soul satisfying supper. You can also enjoy broccoli raab in any spicy oriental stir-fry – it has a real affinity for garlic and chilies. Once you've grown and eaten this zesty vegetable, you'll develop a real craving for its intense full flavor. I also often cook the leafy stalks and buds to serve at room temperature with a garlicky herb dressing. My friends and family really look forward to this seasonal treat as a first course or savory salad.