I first was introduced to David Tanis through an article in the November 2005 issue of Saveur. He is chef part of the year at Chez Panisse in Berekely, California. He spends the other half of the year in Paris.
In the article he prepared several dishes using ingredients culled from his visits to various outdoor markets around Paris. I decided to try his gratin of Swiss chard.
Up to this point I had never eaten chard – or perhaps I had and didn’t know it. I am quite content eating all manner of greens, so I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. First, a visit to the supermarket to purchase the Swiss chard. Without getting too technical, there are several varieties available – a red, a white, and a green. I purchased the white variety – dark green large leaves with a large white stalk running down the middle. Chef Tanis explained that in order to maximize this vegetable’s potential one had to treat it as two separate entities. The stalks, cut into batons and parboiled, are one part of the equation. The leaves, chiffonaded and sauteed, are the second part of the equation. I proceeded with these tasks, taking care to following his directions exactly as written. Next was the bechamel sauce. Bechamel is a lovely white sauce created by making a roux and adding milk and a generous helping of nutmeg. Having a soft spot for French sauces, I was more than happy to whisk this mixture into submission for the suggested 15 minutes. A generous grating of Parmesan cheese and 35 minutes later my husband and I experienced what can only be described as vegetable nirvana. At first there was complete silence, followed by smiles and then the laughter one experiences when ticked pink with a new discovery. We were smitten. We were in love. Gratin of Swiss chard was our new baby.
Since I am such a decent person, I will share with you my version of this “can’t get enough of it” dish. (Note: Be prepared to devote a fair share of time prepping this dish. Nothing is difficult, however.)
3 large bunches Swiss chard
3-4 oz. grated Parmesan cheese
2 c. Milk
1 stick Butter (plus extra for greasing gratin dish)
1/4 c. Flour
Extra virgin olive oil
Red pepper flakes
Grease 9″ or similar sized gratin dish with butter. Set aside.
Take each large leaf of Swiss chard and cut leaves from stalks. Reserve stalks. Cut stalks into 3″ batons (sticks). Set aside. Take 3 or 4 leaves and lay them on top of each other. Roll them up tightly and take a serated knife and cut them into thin slices. This will create a chiffonade (ribbon) of Swiss chard. You will need a large bowl to hold all of the Swiss chard leaves once you are done cutting them.
In a small saucepan bring some salted water to a boil. Place the stalks (batons) of the Swiss chard in the boiling water and cook for 5-6 minutes. Drain and set aside.
In a large saute pan add some red pepper flakes (1/4. t. at most), salt and pepper. Drizzle in a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Heat pan over medium high heat. When the oil starts to sizzle, take some tongs and add the leaves of the Swiss chard. As they start to cook down, add some more leaves until all of the leaves have been added. Cook leaves, turning to coat each batch with the extra virgin olive oil mixture. Place cooked mixture in a colander and let drain.
In a medium saucepan melt one stick of butter. To this add the flour and whisk for 3 minutes over medium heat. Add the milk slowly, whisking constantly. Continuing whisking mixture for about 15 minutes, adding lots of nutmeg (at least 1 teaspoon) and a pinch of salt. The mixture will start to thicken. After about 15 minutes the mixture should be thick and smooth. Remove from heat.
Layer Swiss chard leaves in bottom of buttered gratin dish. Lay stalks on top of leaves. Cover with bechamel sauce. Grate Parmesan cheese and sprinkle generously on top of bechamel sauce. Bake in 375 degree oven for 35 minutes, until top becomes nicely browned.
The sad part of this entire production is that Swiss chard, like its cousins in the “greens family”, cooks down to almost nothing. So, while you might think that a recipe like this should yield many servings, it does not. I would say that this will serve 4-6 as a side dish, with no leftovers. However, two hungry adults could easily polish off the entire dish in one sitting. To share or not to share – it’s hard to feel generous after taking your first bite. I leave the decision to you.