Growing the gorgeous stalks and sweeping leaves of this healthy plant is definitely a bright idea.
Credit: Photo: Randy Mayor

True confession: There once was a time when I thought Swiss chard was a cheese. Imagine a college-kid intern at Cooking Light channeling Annie Hall in a three-piece suit, determined to live, breathe, and eat this magazine while conquering a new career. After work one night, I wanted to bring a dish from my new job to a dinner party. Zipping through the supermarket in my she-means-business shoes with a recipe torn from the latest issue, I found all the necessary ingredients to wow my dinner guests, save one: something called Swiss chard.

In the mountain of imported cheeses, I left no plastic-shrouded block unturned. I finally asked where I might find this elusive cheese. I began turning beet red (I now know, incidentally, that the beet is a cousin to chard) as the deli manager began walking me to the other end of the store. With every step toward the piles of fresh produce, my face took on a deeper shade.

Stalk colors come in a rainbow of shades. Snip early for salad greens.

The dish turned out to be a delight, and chard became a sentimental favorite. When I left office life for the garden calling, Swiss chard gained a permanent place in the plot and on the dinner plate. The plants are gorgeous, highly nutritious, and adaptable to year-round gardening. The leaves have a spinach-like quality and are less bitter than beet greens. And chard is rich in vitamins K, A, and C.

Like so many of the greens we have in the Cooking Light Garden, Swiss chard can be eaten in many stages of maturity. Sow the burr-like seeds every 4 to 5 inches and 1 inch deep, and then thin seedlings to 8 or 10 inches apart. Use tiny scissors to thin the seedlings (instead of pulling up) and enjoy as microgreens. As it grows, use 6-inch cuttings in salads, and stunning 18-inch leaves for sautés, stews, quiches, and more. The crunchy stems can be sliced into the sauté pan a bit before the greens, or pickled.

Swiss chard can be enjoyed nearly year-round in many climates, from spring to early winter. While spinach melts in summer and lettuce fizzles in frosts, Swiss chard stands tall and shines brightly. A late-summer planting will yield hearty production in fall, and the plants can overwinter in a protective cold frame. Using frost cloth stretched over hoops on raised beds keeps a cozy climate inside. This beauty is also highly ornamental in container plantings with flowers and throughout the garden.