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.