Since greens are one of the first crops you can harvest, the first weeks of most CSAs involve lots of them. In addition to the nettles, we’ve had lambsquarter (another “weed”), collards, chard, a variety of chois, and 1-2 bunches of kale every week.
I usually just sauté them with some garlic (and sometimes ginger or onion or a hot pepper) until they’re wilted and then I dress them with something acidic (lemon, white wine vinegar, rice vinegar) and something umami (tamari, crumbled bacon, grated parmesan). Salt and pepper to taste. That varies from great to mediocre. Sometimes the mild bitterness of the greens marries perfectly with the salty, rich, bright, savory accompaniments and it seems like exactly the kind of fresh, simple, delicious, nutrient-rich food that I joined a CSA to enjoy. Other times, it doesn’t matter if the greens are cooked in rendered bacon fat and topped with msg, it just tastes virtuous, and I mean that in the pejorative sense.
So this week, faced with two bunches of chard—one we didn’t manage to eat last week and another from the new box, I decided to try a classic preparation I’d heard of but never tasted.
Nothing Garlic, Butter and Cheese can’t fix
A gratin is just a casserole. It usually involves vegetables, pasta or meat tossed in a classic béchamel or flour-thickened milk sauce and topped with breadcrumbs and grated cheese. According to Wikipedia, the name comes from the French verb “gratter” meaning “to scrape,” which refers to the scrapings or gratings of bread or cheese that form the upper crust. Fun food idiom trivia: le gratin has the same metaphorical significance as “upper crust” in English.
Baked mac & cheese is a gratin. So is the classic green bean casserole people make for Thanksgiving, even though most people let Campbell’s make the white sauce (which is basically what any flour-thickened cream soup is). But ironically, potatoes au gratin isn’t—or at least not the ones I’ve had, which are basically just potato slices in white sauce, or like a gratin without le gratin.
Chard gratin is about what you’d expect if you substituted the pasta in baked macaroni and cheese or the green beans in green bean casserole with cooked leafy greens—it’s creamy and savory and rich. It seems like a winter dish, especially because it requires that you turn on the oven, which I admit is sort of a drag in July, but it turned out to be exactly the sort of thing I was looking for to mix up my summer greens routine.
You could use any cooking green you like (epicurious has a nice visual guide to some of the more common ones). I can’t tell much of a difference between them after they’ve been wilted. Sure, some of them are a little more or less bitter and some stay chewier after cooking, but I wouldn’t want to have to identify them in a blind taste test. I assume the reason chard gratin is so much more common than spinach gratin (798000 google results compared to 164000) even though the latter is the more popular green by far is because casseroles are a handy way to use the stems as well as the leaves, and that’s just not an issue for spinach. Sadly, the stems don’t retain much of their spectacular color after cooking, but they are tender and mildly-flavored so it’s a shame to throw them away. They melt right into the casserole along with the softened onion and leaves.
I scanned a few recipes and then basically improvised based on what I had on hand. Precise instructions available below the jump, but here’s the short version you should feel free to adapt/improvise on at will: Blanche 2-3 bunches of chopped greens in boiling water, stems first for 2 minutes if using and leaves for another 1-3 depending on how hearty they are (spinach only needs a minute, kale or chard will take 3 to soften fully). Drain well. Then, sauté a fistful of chopped onions and/or garlic in some kind of fat, stir in a couple of tablespoons of flour and then gradually whisk in about a cup of milk. Season with salt and pepper and a little grated nutmeg, stir in some grated cheese if you want it, and add the well-drained greens. Spoon the mixture into a buttered baking dish, top with buttered breadcrumbs mixed with some herbs and grated parmesan, and bake (350-400F) until golden and bubbling (about 20 minutes).
To make it more like a main than a side, add some cooked pasta or a protein like leftover cooked meat, diced seitan, reconstituted tvp, or canned crab or tuna along with the cooked greens. You could also throw in some other vegetables, steamed or blanched unless they’re tender enough to eat raw. Following from the Thanksgiving classic, you could make a semi-homemade version by using a can or two of cream soup (probably onion and/or mushroom) instead of making a white sauce. Actually, with the green bean casserole in mind, I might try adding some crispy fried shallots to the topping the next time I make this. Which, if the CSA keeps up the current pace of the greens, will probably be very soon.
Recipe: Swiss Chard Gratin
- 2 bunches Swiss Chard, leaves and stems (or another hearty green)
- 2 cups water
- 4 T. fat, divided plus more for greasing pan (butter, lard, or your preferred oil will all work fine)
- 1 large onion
- 3 garlic scapes (seasonally-available green curly garlic tops) or 1-2 cloves garlic
- 1 cup milk (may sub oat milk or another vegan milk if desired—per Chocolate & Zucchini)
- 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
- 1/2 cup (2 oz) shredded cheddar (or gruyere or fontina or emmenthaler)
- 1/4 cup grated parmesan, divided
- 3/4 cup breadcrumbs
- 2 T. chopped flat-leaf parsley (or another herb or combination of herbs)
- salt and pepper to taste
1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Put the water in a large pot with a pinch of salt, set over high heat, and cover.
2. Remove the leaves from the stems of the chard by holding the stem in one hand and stripping the leaves upwards with the other. The stem should naturally break off where it’s small enough to include with the leaves.
3. Chop and rinse the stems well and add to the water, which should be boiling (if not, either you’re speedy or your stove is slow and either way, wait ‘til it is boiling before putting the leaves in). Cook the stems for about 2 minutes before adding the leaves. Then, boil/steam the leaves for about 3 minutes more (less if using a softer green like spinach—you just want it to just wilt, not dissolve). Drain the greens well.
4. Heat 2 Tablespoons of fat over medium heat in a large skillet or pot while you dice the onion and mince the garlic. Sweat the alliums until translucent and beginning to brown (5-10 minutes).
5. Meanwhile, melt the remaining 2 T. fat if solid and combine with the breadcrumbs, 2 T. parmesan, the parsley, and salt and pepper to taste.
6. Sprinkle 2 T. flour over the onions and stir. Cook for 1-2 minutes or until golden brown.
7. Add the milk a few tablespoons at a time, stirring well after each addition. This should form a very thick, creamy sauce.
8. Grate some nutmeg over the mixture (or add pre-grated nutmeg), and add the cheddar, 2 T. parmesan, and salt and pepper to taste.
9. Add the drained greens to the white sauce and stir well to combine.
10. Grease a medium-sized baking dish. Spread the greens evenly in the dish and top with the breadcrumb mixture.
11. Bake 20-25 minutes or until the dish is bubbling and the breadcrumbs are beginning to brown.