Silverbeet has long been a Kiwi garden staple though coloured varieties known as Swiss chard are becoming more popular. Both are easy to grow. Silverbeet is related to sugar beet but the latter produces a bulb which is processed into sugar, and silverbeet is grown for its fleshy leaves. The green 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. Silverbeet is a good source of nutrients, packed with potassium, iron, fibre, Vitamins A and C and some from the B group. If you are not a gardener, you’ll likely find it at farmers’ markets, greengrocers and supermarkets, such is its popularity.
It’s easy to tell whether silverbeet is fresh or not – the leaves should be shiny, looking as if they have been lightly rubbed with oil, and they should be erect not floppy. The stems should be white with no decay, although the cut ends may show a little browning which occurs naturally after cutting.
My mother used to store silverbeet wrapped in damp newspaper in a stone tub in the laundry, (I think because there was no room in the fridge!) but it stayed fresh for days. It doesn’t like being stored in sealed plastic bags – it can rot – nor does it like being too cold (the leaves freeze). Keep it wrapped loosely in plastic and store 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.
Thoroughly wash silverbeet before cooking because you never know what is trapped in the furled leaves, especially in homegrown silverbeet. (Slugs! Earwigs! Ewww!!!) Chop stems and leaves separately.
The white stems of green silverbeet take longer to cook than the leaves, so add them to a pan of boiling salted water and cook for a few minutes before adding the leaves. The stems of coloured chard are thinner and can be cooked with the leaves, (for mature coloured chard with thick stems, proceed as for silverbeet). Alternatively, cook chopped leaves in a saucepan over a gentle heat with just the water clinging to the leaves, stirring often. The leaves will cook in the steam from the clinging water.
Young silverbeet or chard leaves can be finely chopped and added to a mixed salad, although a word of caution, they need acid and salt in the dressing to make them palatable.
Most varieties of silverbeet are mild in flavour, with just a mild acidic tang, a little chalkiness and a hint of earthiness. Salt minimizes the chalkiness, as it does with spinach. If overcooked, or kept hot for any length of time, silverbeet can darken and develop an unpleasant metallic flavour.
Silverbeet can be steamed, stir-fried or microwaved, and it’s great in quiches, pies and tarts, samosas, in filo pastries and in strudels. It’s better in stuffings in many ways than spinach, unless you want a very smooth mixture, because it has character (bounce) and fibre (spinach melts down to nothing).
Here’s a handful of ideas
Remove the white stems from the leaves with a sharp knife and cook them separately to the green leaves. Boil white stems until tender, drain and dry with paper towels then layer in a gratin dish with béchamel or cheese sauce, or tomato sauce and parmesan cheese and cook until bubbling.
The stems can also be turned into a golden crisp fried vegetable. Cook until nearly tender, drain, dry off, dust with flour, dunk in beaten egg, then coat with crumbs. Fry in hot oil until golden. Serve with lemon wedges.
Go a step further and sandwich cooked stems with thin slices of ham and gruyere or mozzarella cheese, dust with flour, dunk in beaten egg, then coat with crumbs and fry in hot oil until golden. Serve with homemade tomato sauce and a salad.
*The above ideas are also suitable for cardoons, a cousin to artichokes. Read about cardoons here http://sharedkitchen.co.nz/2015/07/cardoons-the-new-artichoke/
Give the leaves a bit of a shuzh-up. Lightly brown crushed dried chillies and garlic in extra virgin olive oil and stir through cooked leaves. Add a sweet-sour taste with raisins plumped in red wine or balsamic vinegar. Serve with pork cutlets or pan-fried chicken breasts and mash.
Or sauté a handful of pine nuts and some crushed garlic in extra virgin olive oil and as soon as it starts to brown, add drained silverbeet, salt and some chilli flakes. Again, a handful of sultanas soaked in lemon juice or white wine will add a touch of sweetness.
To make a great plate mate for pork, chicken or fish, reheat cooked silverbeet in a little extra virgin olive oil, then toss through chopped coriander (cilantro), orange zest and black pepper.
The Greeks add chopped silverbeet to black-eyed beans towards the end of cooking and anoint the lot with puddles of fruity green olive oil and plenty of garlic and garnish with wedges of lemon. I love this dish, but the silverbeet makes the cooking liquid turn dark, so I prefer to blanch the silverbeet first, and add it just to reheat.