Growing up, I came to love Swiss chard for one reason only—the instrumental role it played in a delectable Italian dish called malfatti, which I learned about through my wife Bette. Bette grew up in Tenafly and one of her lifelong friends was a great gal named Adele. In addition to having a restaurant in Tenafly named Gabby’s, Adele’s father, Alfred Garbarino (everyone just called him “Gabby”), had a summer house in Lavallette and would always open the house to Adele and her sister’s friends and boyfriends and would cook for us. Among our gang’s favorite items was a delicious southern Italian dish he made called malfatti. All of these years later, Gabby is still in my heart and the taste of malfatti always brings back wonderful memories of a man who treated all of us kids like family when we were growing up in the 1960s. He made a big impression on me, just like malfatti will make on you!
The Story of Swiss Chard
Swiss chard, sometimes just called “chard” or “leaf beet,” is a hard beet known for its succulent stalk and large flat or crinkled green leaves that grow from a thick, greenish white central stalk or rib. There’s also a red-stemmed variety that almost looks like rhubarb, brightly colored-stemmed varieties typically called “rainbow chard,” and other versions that have a dark red leaf. Both the leaves and the stems of chard are eaten, which leads some cooks to call Swiss chard two vegetables in one—the cooked leaf is similar to spinach, while the stalks can be cooked separately like asparagus.
Interestingly, and despite its name, Swiss chard has no special association with Switzerland. It actually originated in the Mediterranean region and ancient Greeks and Romans used it as an herbal remedy. High in vitamin K, which is critical for blood coagulation and calcium metabolism by the bones, Swiss chard is available from April to December and is most plentiful between June and October.
Selecting, Storing, and Preparing Chard
When selecting chard, look for leaves and stalks that are crisp and fresh-looking and avoid bunches that are wilted or brown. To store, keep chard refrigerated in a perforated plastic storage bag for up to three or four days, as it always has a better flavor when it’s fresh.
To prepare chard, discard a thin slice at the base of the stalk and wash the bunch thoroughly in a sink full of cold water. Avoid cooking Swiss chard in aluminum or iron pans, which will discolor it. Many cooks separate the stalks from the leaves if the stalks are more than half an inch wide; the leaves are either cooked separately or added to the pot when the stalks are almost done.
If they’re very young and fresh, the leaves can be eaten raw in salads. If you elect to cook chard, steam or sauté it rather than boiling it, as that will help it retain more flavor. Overall, treat chard as you would spinach, but cook it a bit longer. Swiss chard is a good substitute for bok choy in stir-fried dishes, is very good creamed, and makes delicious soup. The leaves are excellent chopped and added to a variety of other soups—including chicken, minestrone, vegetable and lentil—during the last few minutes of cooking time.
As for the stalks, they’re great steamed whole or cut on the diagonal and steamed or braised for just a few minutes so that they’re slightly crisp when done. They can then be served like asparagus, either hot or cold, and are good with a variety of sauces, including vinaigrettea and even hollandaise.
In other applications, a seasoned Swiss chard and ricotta cheese filling can make a great stuffing for pastas like ravioli or tortellini, while for a great seafood dish, put a bed of steamed leaves in a baking dish or in individual ovenproof shells, place cooked stalks over them, then spread a mixture of crab meat and Mornay sauce over the top. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and bread crumbs and heat in a 325-degree oven until the sauce is browned on top. You can also stuff Swiss chard leaves—after wilting them by barely steaming or blanching them, make a filling of ground meat and rice or wild rice sautéed with onions, garlic, seasonings, and herbs. Put a spoonful on each leaf, wrap, and place in a shallow baking dish, seam side down. Add tomato sauce, a creamy cheese sauce, or any braising liquid to barely cover the stuffed leaves. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and bake in a 325-degree oven for about 45 minutes.
Or try Gabby’s Malfatti, a dish that’s been a favorite of mine for nearly 60 years—I know you’ll love it too!
(Makes 4 to 6 servings)
½ cup (1 stick) butter
1 cup finely chopped onions
4 cups Swiss chard, cooked, drained, and chopped
2 pounds ground beef
1¼ cups grated Parmesan cheese
¾ cup bread crumbs
½ cup flour
4 cups tomato sauce
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a skillet, melt the butter, add the onion, and sauté until lightly browned. In a large bowl, mix the sautéed onion, Swiss chard, ground beef, 1 cup grated cheese, eggs, and bread crumbs. Take a small handful of the mixture and form into sausage-like rolls about 3 inches long. Place some flour in a dish and roll each malfatti in flour until well-coated. Bring a large saucepan half full of water to a boil, place the malfatti rolls into the pan, and boil them until they float to the top, about 5-7 minutes. Remove them with a slotted spoon and drain. Cover the bottom of the baking pan with tomato sauce and place the malfatti in the pan in a single layer. Cover with sauce and sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan cheese, bake for approximately 20-30 minutes, and enjoy!
About “Produce Pete” Napolitano
With over 65 years of experience in the produce industry, New Jersey’s own “Produce Pete” Napolitano is a renowned fruit and vegetable expert, author, and television personality who’s appeared on a highly-popular segment on NBC’s Weekend Today in New York broadcast every Saturday mornings for over 27 years. For more information, visit Pete’s website.
About Susan Bloom
A contributor to New Jersey Monthly and a variety of other well-known local and national publications, Susan Bloom is an award-winning New Jersey-based freelance writer who covers topics ranging from health and lifestyle to business, food and more. She’s collaborated with Produce Pete on a broad range of articles for nearly a decade.