Chard Stems for Winter Pickling

The rain is back today, but we’ve just been through a spate of icy weather here in the Willamette Valley. All that I’ve been able to harvest from the garden, besides half-frozen parsley, are vegetables growing under plastic sheeting. Even under the plastic the lettuce has frozen. The lone survivors are kale, turnips, mizuna, arugula, peas, and Swiss chard.

Though in summer I always have some chard growing, this hardy plant, from which you can harvest continually for months, is much more valuable to me in cooler seasons. I happily use the leaves in many of the same ways I use spinach.

But I have never quite known what to do with the stems. Spaniards boil them, roll them in flour and egg, and fry them, but the results, to my mind, fail to justify the mess. Italians boil the stalks nearly to mush—for thirty minutes, according to Marcella Hazan—and then sauté them with garlic or bake them with butter and cheese. In parts of France, says Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning, chard stems are traditionally fermented in a weak brine without seasonings. After trying the recipe, though, I made a one-word marginal note: “Yuck.”

I do like chard stems raw. They’re crisp like celery but juicier, and pleasantly sweet. Even more than celery, though, they’re stringy, especially if they’re big. To avoid ending up chewing on a wad of string, you have to string each stem before you eat it, by loosening the outer fibers at one cut end and gently stripping them down the length. Fortunately, this is a quick and easy task.

If chard stems are this good raw, they ought to be good pickled in vinegar, right? I had overlooked this possibility in developing recipes for The Joy of Pickling. So a few weeks ago I tried a quick chard pickle, using a minimal quantity of good, mild wine vinegar to enhance rather than overwhelm the delicate flavor of the vegetable. Here’s my recipe:

Pickled Chard Stems

 ¼ teaspoon fennel seeds
¼ teaspoon coriander seeds
1 large garlic clove, sliced
1 Mediterranean bay leaf
1 pinch of hot pepper flakes
1 teaspoon pickling salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/3 cup white wine vinegar
2/3 cup water
About ¾ pound chard stems, cut into lengths of about 4 inches, sliced lengthwise if they’re broad, and strung*

Combine all of the ingredients except the chard in a small saucepan, and cover the pan. Bring the mixture to a boil, remove the pan from the heat, and let the mixture cool.

While the pickling liquid cools, pack the chard sticks in the pint jar. Trim them, if necessary, to allow about ½ inch headspace. Pour the cooled liquid and spices over the chard, covering it completely. Close the jar, and store it in the refrigerator.

The pickled chard is delicious after twelve hours and even better after a week or two. It will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator.

*Note that stringing chard stems is even more important when you’re pickling them than when you’re eating them raw, because the strings tend to separate from the flesh during pickling and become immediately noticeable in the mouth.

After developing this recipe I checked the Web to see if other people are pickling chard. They are indeed. I found one recipe with a heavy use of vinegar, and another with large proportions of sugar and hot sauce as well as vinegar. I also found one, from Jennifer Burns Levin, that’s more moderately flavored, with the 1:1 ratio of vinegar to water that the USDA recommends for canning. Although the USDA hasn’t developed its own chard pickle recipe or suggested a processing time for such a pickle, Jennifer’s recipe would be a good starting point if you’re determined to can your pickled chard.

Both Jennifer’s and Kaela’s recipes are worth looking at if only for the photos, because the chard is so beautifully colored. My chard pickles, made from white-stemmed chard, look so plain that I didn’t bother to photograph them. Next spring I’ll plant some red-stemmed chard—or maybe Bright Lights, a 1998 AAS winner with mixed yellow, orange, and pink stems—just so I can make chard pickles that look as lovely as they taste.

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About Linda Ziedrich

I grow, cook, preserve, and write about food in Oregon's Willamette Valley.
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19 Responses to Chard Stems for Winter Pickling

  1. Beti says:

    I was just in the garden today taking the compost out. I checked the rainbow chard and found that there might be a few salvageable plants left. Your recipe sounds interesting and I hope I’ll have time to make it for Christmas dinner. We are near Oregon City and I’m glad to see a little break from the freezing temperatures!

  2. Julia says:

    This fall, I made kale stem pickles and they came out amazingly. They are great to eat as sticks, but also good chopped up in salads. I found that the younger stems were better, we had lots of rain so they were juicy and not woody at all. I recall a recipe for pickled chard stems on the NY Times, too.

  3. Linda says:

    I’ll have to try pickling kale stems! Thanks for the idea, Julia.

  4. Pingback: Swiss Chard Recipes—From Me (and Some Friends) » Chez Bonne Femme

  5. Cynthia says:

    Linda, here (and in your pickling book) you mention that the USDA recommends a 1:1 ratio of vinegar to water for canning pickles, but I noticed the USDA’s recipes do not have that ratio, such as this one http://nchfp.uga.edu/how/can_06/quick_dill_pickles.html. Also, your recipe for really quick dill pickles doesn’t follow this ratio either. I can’t find that recommendation in writing anywhere at the NCFHP website….can you tell me where they are saying that? I think I might need to adjust my favorite pickle recipe if it is indeed the case. Thanks.

  6. Cynthia, the 1:1 ratio is a general rule cited by some Extension agents for judging the safety of non-USDA recipes. I based my “Really Quick Dill Pickles” on a lab-tested USDA recipe, probably the same one to which you’ve provided a link.

  7. Sheila says:

    I thought the flavor of chard improved after a frost, so I didn’t cover it the other night and we had a freeze. The leaves aren’t as bad looking as my basil (LOL) which was covered, but are the stems still good for pickling? They’re looking a little droopy…

  8. Sheila, it sounds like you had a hard freeze. I would wait and see if the stalks firm up.

  9. Sheila says:

    A few of the leaves got frozen but most are OK, the outer stems are droopy but most are upright (they’re growing thickly). Supposed to be 70 today so we’ll see if they perk up. I really want to try pickling these for this year’s Tavern Night.

  10. Linda, I really have been enjoying catching on your blog that I have found recently.

    I have to chime on this post.

    I love Swiss chard! I looked at that recipe too (in the Preserving Food without freezing or canning), but I did not try it, mainly because I did not have the right kind of Swiss chard, In France, Swiss Chard (called Poiree – with an accent aigu on the first e which I am unable to reproduce – or bette) is divided into 2 groups: Poiree a couper (Leafy Swiss Chard) and Poiree a Carde (Big stem Swiss chard). The 2nd kind is used for that recipe as indicated by the book “Bette Verte A Carde Blanche”. In fact in some areas of France, the relatively insignificant leaves are discarded, because all the goodness is in the stems. In my experience, that kind of chard is harder to soure in the US, although Seeds from Italy as one (but so far it has not done well for me — too bad!). I expect that the lacto-fermented stems would be cooked (as is done with fresh chard stem), probably in gratin, and not eaten as-is. So all of that may make a big difference in the final taste. If my Poiree de Lyons a Carde Blanche does better this year and not peter out in early summer), I will try the lacto-fermenting myself.

    I also read your post of November 2012 where you tried bright light which “bled” all over the jar… That’s actually one reason I do not like colored Swiss chard: because they leak their color unappetizingly. I also find their taste a little rough… but I admit to be biased towards green and white Swiss chard.

    • Sylvie, my daughter who lives in Paris says that she sees only one variety of chard in the markets there and that it’s usually labeled blette, although I think that word was originally applied to Amaranthus blitum, which is seldom eaten today. But I see that Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook lists a chard variety called Lyoner Yellow, which is “raised for stems rather than leaves” and has stalks as broad as 4 inches. That must be the variety you’re growing, right? I hope you’ll tell me how it does this year.

      The French recipe in Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning says to “cook the chard if you like.” I might indeed like it better cooked.

      Chez nous, the poirée à couper/poirée à carde distinction happens with the same plants: Young chard has tender leaves, unchewed by cucumber beetles, and small stems, whereas old chard has tough, holey leaves, fit for the compost pile, and tall, thick stems.

      • Linda, thank you for taking the time to respond.
        First apologies for some of the atrocious typos in my initial response!

        L’Encyclopedie du Potager (Actes Sud, 2003) has a very interesting side bar about the etymology of the various words (bettes, bete, blette, poree, & poiree) all used overtime in France to describe this most antique vegetable. And, that’s not counting all the regional names!

        Yes, I like Swiss Chard: it grows well throughout the summer (unless blister beetles are around – yikes!), winters over with some protection and, freezes beautifully (blanches and squeezed). I first met Swiss chard in Provence in a sweetish pie – one I still make and people do like a lot. When cooking the leaves in savory dishes, it was frequent to mix it with sorrel to add some acidity.

        I grow Perpetual Spinach Beet, Lucullus, Fordhook Giant, Ruby Chard, and have tried some other thin stems one like Bright Light. I have also tried thick-stemmed ones offered by Seeds of Italy (http://www.growitalian.com/chard-bionda-di-lione-14-2/) and this year: http://www.growitalian.com/chard-verde-a-costa-blanca-14-3b/. I think I planted Blonde de Lyon too early and in too dry a situation so they bolted early in the summer… like what happens to mustard & Asian greens planted out too early. I need to give them a moister richer soil and start them later — when the soil has warmed up more. It’s just that’s when it’s February, I am anxious for fresh greens!

        Anyway…. I could not see Lyoner Yellow in the Seed Saver Exchange on-line catalog, but based on the name, it sounds similar. Maybe your daughter can pick-up some Vilmorin seeds for you? http://www.vilmorin-jardin.fr/recherche-produit/legumes/potageres/poiree-verte-a-carde-blanche-3-race-de-paris/1-6-803/ or http://www.vilmorin-jardin.fr/recherche-produit/legumes/potageres/poiree-blonde-a-carde-blanche-2/1-6-801/

        Thank you again for a most wonderful blog. I really appreciate that you list sources and references.
        Best

  11. Ah! I went to the Seed Saver catalog and could not find the Lyoner Yellow, but I now see it in the Yearbook (I did not pay enough attention!)… I expect it is the same or very similar to the one offered by Vilmorin in France or Seeds of Italy in the US
    That also reminds me that I also grow Argentata (not every year tough).
    I also see that Nichols Garden Nursery has something they call “French Swiss chard”…. hmm… I should try it out.

  12. Sylvie, I guess you really do like Swiss chard!

    I’ll ask Rose Marie at Nichols about her French variety, but from the description I think it’s a couper sort.

    For everyone interested, here is a description of the Lyon variety, from Vilmorin-Andrieux’s Les plantes potagères, 1904. “POIRÉE BLONDE A CARDE BLANCHE. SYNONYME: Poirée à carde de Lyon. Noms rTBANGFRS : ANGL. Large-ribbed white silver leaf swiss-chard or sea-kale beet. —’.LL. Weissrippige Silberbeete, Gelbe breitrippige Silberbeete.– FLAN. Witte karden,7.oirler-karden. — ITAL. Bieta a coste blanche. —ESP. Acelga cardo.

    “Très belle et bonne variété, à feuilles grandes et larges, très ondulées, demi-dressées, remarquables par l’ampleur très grande de leurs pétioles et de leurs côtes, qui atteignent et dépassent fréquemment [missing word] de largeur.

    “La P. blonde à carde blanche est un peu moins rustique que la variété ordinaire ; mais elle est beaucoup plus productive, et les cardes en sont de meilleure qualité, très délicates, avec une légère saveur acidulée. De plus, dans cette variété, le limbe même des feuilles peut être utilisé, comme celuide la P. blonde commune, à la manière des feuilles d’oseille ou d’arroche.

    “II semble que dans les bettes, la couleur blonde et pâle des feuilles soit liée à une saveur douce, tandis que la couleur vert foncé est l’indice d’un goût fort et âcre. Il y a peu de légumes qui demandent moins de soins. Dès le mois de Juillet on peut cueillir des cardes bien développées, et la production se soutient tout l’été et tout l’automne, et peut même se prolonger en hiver si l’on en rentre quelques pieds dans la serre à légumes.”

    From the list of names, you can see that this probably is indeed the same variety as Seeds of Italy’s Costa Bianca, pictured here: http://www.seedsofitaly.com/SWISS_CHARD_COSTA_BIANCA/p1834925_8313209.aspx. Another picture of the Lyon variety appears here:
    http://www.wallogreen.com/green/home/331-poiree-blonde-a-carde-blanche-2-de-lyon.html. It looks to me a bit like bok choy.

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