Chard tends to hide in plain sight at most grocery stores and farmers' markets, generally close to its better-known cousin, spinach. A member of the beet family, chard is grown for its leaves rather than its roots (which are inedible). The red, or ruby variety of chard is quite easy to recognize; the stalks are deep vibrant purply-crimson, and the leaves are dark velvety green with thick magenta veining. The green variety is less ostentatious; its stalks are white, its leaves a softer green. It is the most prolifically growing variety, which explains its widespread presence. The rainbow variety shows off a delightful array of intensely hued stalks ranging from red to marigold-yellow to pink to white. The newer Bright Lights chard has green leaves and bright yellow stalks. All are tasty and boast a crisp, hardy leaf.
There is some debate regarding the proper naming of this vegetable: is it Swiss chard or simply chard? I've read articles claiming that only the common green chard is rightfully called Swiss; other sources consider the "Swiss" part and parcel of the nomenclature. Either way, chard was not discovered or popularized in Switzerland. It is theorized that perhaps the first use of the term "Swiss chard" was in seed and gardening catalogues in the 19th century, perhaps in order to distinguish this vegetable from the French thistle known as cardon or carde.
People have been eating chard for many years; it is mentioned in ancient Roman, Greek, and Arab documents. Ruby chard has been in existence since at least 350 B.C., when it was referred to by Aristotle. Chard seems to have been historically most prominent in the Mediterranean region of the world.
Chard is rich in antioxidant vitamins, phytonutrients, and minerals. Specifically, chard contains beneficial amounts of vitamin E, vitamin C, beta carotene, potassium, and magnesium. It is low in calories (a decent-sized serving cooked with garlic is about 45 calories) yet quite hearty and satisfying.
Chard has a subtle yet distinct flavor; slightly sweet, milder than spinach or kale. It goes very well with garlic, and if you are so inclined, a pinch of salt tossed in while cooking. The stalks are edible and quite tasty; in fact, some consider them the best part of the plant. At any rate, they add fiber to your meal, and we could all use more fiber.
Prior to cooking, the leaves should be separated from the stalks and torn into appropriately sized pieces. The stalks can then be chopped like celery and thrown into the pot 5-10 minutes before the leaves go in. I find that just a bit of good-quality olive oil in the bottom of the pot (but no water; it is okay if the leaves are wet from washing) is sufficient to prevent sticking, and bring out the vegetable's natural richness. Garlic should be chopped finely, and added at the same time as the oil. Bring garlic and oil to sizzling over medium heat before adding the stalks. Garlic and chard exist harmoniously, neither detracting from or burying the flavor of the other; it is difficult to add too much garlic! The leaves will cook down quite a bit; the average grocery-store-size bunch will serve two or three people.
I cannot stress enough the importance of not overcooking chard (or any other leafy vegetable, for that matter). You do not want the leaves to turn brown or get soggy. Cook only until the colour brightens and the volume of the leaves in the pot decreases by 1/3 to 1/2. Overcooking not only leaches valuable nutrients out of the vegetable, it is very detrimental to taste. I've encountered many people who claim to hate this or that vegetable, only to find that this is simply because their parents insisted on cooking it to a limp goo.
For a meal component that pleases the sense of sight as much as the sense of taste, you might want to combine several different varieties of chard, such as red, yellow, and green. The result is a delightful rainbow-coloured dish that is anything but boring. It pairs well with all sorts of meats and sides; one of the nicest meals I've ever had consisted of oven-roasted lemon-peppered chicken, carrot rice pilaf, and rainbow chard.
Due credit must be given to MrFish, my tireless partner in love and cooking.
sneff informs me that on his native soil, chard is known as silverbeet. Thanks!
Historical and Nutritional References: