Back in the day practically every garden in New Zealand was home to a lemon tree, a rhubarb plant or two and a patch of silverbeet. Lemons were a kitchen essential for baking and savoury dishes and were used as a household cleaner and to whiten linen. Rhubarb was turned into crumbles and suchlike, and also made into jams and chutneys. Silverbeet, which grew prolifically, didn’t fare so well, as it was most often boiled until dark and metallic-tasting and served unadorned. No wonder it has been overlooked for trendier greens in recent times.
But HEY, TA-DAH! It’s time to bring this trinity of staples back into the limelight, with silverbeet first up.
When I moved into my new house on Waiheke I was quick to plant a lemon tree. Actually, three lemon trees. This was followed by rhubarb – one thick-stemmed variety and another beautiful red-stemmed plant. Then came silverbeet. I like coloured chard best of all, with it’s deep red stems and veined leaves, and the yellow variety.
Silverbeet’s easy to grow, according to gardening books, and will flouish throughout the seasons producing masses of thick stemmed crinkly leaves. Ha. Not in my garden, unfortunately.
I’ve had about 5 meals from my patch in as many months, and I’ve replanted a second bunch of seedlings. Let’s just say they’re chugging along and I’m hoping they may surprise me now it’s got cooler.
In case you are wondering, silverbeet, chard and Swiss chard are one and the same. Silverbeet and sugar beet are related but the latter produces a bulb which is processed into sugar, and silverbeet is grown for its fleshy leaves. Those leaves take on a silvery sheen in a certain light, almost like a glistening snail trail, and that’s probably where it got its name.
How to make the most of silverbeet? Start off with really fresh leaves. My mother kept her picked silverbeet in damp newspaper in an old stone sink in the laundry. But that was another age! It is best wrapped loosely in plastic, though not sealed to ensure it can breathe, and stored refrigerated in the vegetable crisper. Keep it apart from ethylene-producing produce (melons, apples, kiwifruit, passionfruit, etc.), because ethylene gas will cause it to deteriorate more quickly.
Silverbeet can be cooked with just the water clinging to the leaves (this is not suitable for cooking stems), or immersed in a pan of boiling water. It is best cooked for a short time – a matter of minutes – drained and served immediately. If it is to be reheated, or added to another dish such as a tart or quiche, drain, then cool quickly with cold water and drain again. Wrap in paper towels and squeeze out excess moisture before using.
Like spinach, silverbeet needs salt in the water to lessen its chalkiness (astringency). Once it is cooked, either drain and serve as is, or finish off with seasonings, herbs, oil or butter, then serve. Do not cover cooked silverbeet while finishing off other dishes, or keep it hot in an aluminium saucepan in a bain-marie; that’s the stuff of boarding school nightmares and where food phobias can begin. When overcooked, or kept hot for any length of time, it darkens, develops a boiled cabbage smell and a strong and curiously metallic flavour. And it loses not just its lemony-fresh taste and pleasant crunch, but its goodness, too.
Silverbeet can be stir-fried, steamed or microwaved, used in quiches, pies and tarts, samosas, in filo pastries and in strudels. It’s good in stuffings, and better than spinach in many dishes because it retains some bulk. It makes a good soup, on it’s own or mixed with other vegetables, though it’s important not to keep it hot any longer than necessary, and to brighten the flavour with lemon.
It’s got a bag of dietary goodies, including vitamins A,C and E, and some of the B group, along with plenty of fibre and potassium.
You’ll probably have more luck growing it than me – everyone seems to. If so, you’ll have access to a crunchy bulky green vegetable for a fraction of what you would pay for it in the shops. As for me, I love adding a few of my skinny little leaves to vegetable juices. At least I have enough for that.