I was like one of my kids separating stew on his dinner plate into identifiable parts. A two-pound bag of mixed chard cuttings from our CSA – different sizes and colors – was simply not getting stewed in one go. And the package was too voluminous to fit into the fridge, so it had to be done. My personal rule when returning from our CSA is to prepare the veggies in order based on volume. This week, 1.5 cubic feet of chard and a 3-foot-tall bunch of fennel competed to be cut down to size, both for cooking in the moment and for meals later in the week.
I patiently sorted the chard leaves by color and size, intermingling white with yellow, and piling pink, orange and red with each other. This was like doing laundry. I would rather keep the reds separated from the whites. I was teased all winter for wearing only pink turtlenecks after my husband tended the wash. And I am secretly pleased that he has to endure the pink sheets and towels. (What was he thinking?)
Anyway, the reason for the separation was not just a matter of color. The red chard stems are different in shape and size from the others and the leaves and stems have a more mineral-like flavor. They’re more like beet greens, no surprise, since chard and beets are in the same family. The stems of the lighter chard, including the pink ones, are similar to white. (The mix is called “rainbow chard” or sometimes “bright lights,” market-speak for their multicolored appearance.) They have broad, flat stems that when large are cut lengthwise into matchsticks (which I did). I cut the smaller red stems into dice and cooked them back-to-back with the leaves. (That 1.5 cubic feet wilted down into 3-4 pint containers!) First I cooked the leaves in the water that clung to them after washing, and then the diced stems in the remaining liquid. I stored the remaining liquid (less than ½ cup) with the stems so that I could use it in whatever dish I decided to make from the chard. Waste not want not, as they say.
What I made was a last minute pasta dish, using orecchietta pasta, translated as “little ears,” little cups that catch the added ingredients. While the pasta was boiling, I used some of the hot liquid to soak golden sultana raisins, sautéed the previously cooked chard and stems in olive oil and plenty of garlic from our garden, and toasted slivered almonds that were going to substitute for the traditional pine nuts. I used the chard cooking liquid to moisten the lightly salted pasta.
The combination of the raisins and the mineral taste and texture of the chard stems made my husband speculate that I’d put bacon in the pasta. (Or was it a red bag in a white laundry?) While that seemed to be a curious comment, there is something special, and slightly unexpected, about this combination, which is actually a Sicilian classic.