A big pile of very fresh, very leafy Swiss chard grabbed my attention at a farmers market recently. It's already far enough into winter that green is starting to stand out.
The great thing about Swiss chard is that you get so much out of it: The meaty, crunchy stems and the big, ruffled leaves can be cooked separately and then combined into one dish. Of course, the downside is a hint of beet flavor, which someone people aren't crazy about. So the French have the right idea: Mix it all up with an easy bechamel, so the focus is on green and cream.
Swiss Chard Gratin
Adapted from "The Art of Simple Food," by Alice Waters.
1 1/2 bunches chard
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
About 2 tablespoons butter, divided
1 onion, peeled and diced
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
1/2 cup milk (nonfat will work)
Freshly grated nutmeg
Wash the chard and cut away the thick stems. Trim the stems, then cut into thin slices. Set aside the leaves separately. Bring a pot of salted water to boil. Add the stems and cook about 2 minutes. Stir in the leaves and cook about 3 minutes. Drain, then let stand a few minutes until cool enough to handle. Squeeze out any excess liquid and chop everything coarsely.
Melt about 2 teaspoons of butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the breadcrumbs and stir to coat, then cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly brown. Set aside.
Melt 1 1/2 tablespoons butter over over medium heat in a heavy saucepan. Add the onion and cook about 5 minutes, until transluscent. Stir in the chard and a little salt and cook several minutes. Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and stir well. Stir in the milk and a little freshly grated nutmeg. Cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until thick. Taste and add more salt and nutmeg if needed.
Butter a small baking dish and spread the chard mixture in. Dot with 2 teaspoons butter. Sprinkle evenly with breadcrumbs. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes, until bubbling.
Yield: 4 servings.