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How Green Is Your Table?

March 05, 1997|FAYE LEVY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Levy is the author of "Faye Levy's International Vegetable Cookbook" (Warner Books, 1994)

Most of us know that it's sensible to eat a variety of foods to add interest to our meals and for good nutrition. Still, it's easy to fall into a rut and keep buying the same stuff. I find it rewarding to explore the produce department at leisure and make a point of trying some out-of-the-ordinary greens. One that is worth eating more often is Swiss chard.

Tucked away in a corner with other greens for cooking, chard is often ignored by hurried shoppers. Many don't realize that chard is a great choice for busy people who wish to include nutrient-rich greens in everyday menus. And it's one of the easiest greens to get to like. The large, deep green, slightly crinkled leaves have a mild flavor and a pleasing texture.

Unlike spinach, chard is not served raw, but it cooks rapidly, in about 3 minutes, whether you boil, steam or saute it. Chard's advantage over spinach is that it has big leaves, so there are fewer to wash and trim.

Well-stocked markets also carry red chard, which has green leaves, brilliant red stems and a taste slightly reminiscent of beets. Briefly cooked, red chard becomes a pretty green and red vegetable accompaniment. It's popular among restaurant chefs, who serve it with hearty meats like roasted rabbit or braised lamb.

Chard is loved in Mediterranean lands. Italian cooks have developed an effortless way to prepare greens that is ideal for red or green chard. They boil the chard, sprinkle the drained vegetable lightly with extra-virgin olive oil, salt and freshly ground pepper and garnish it with lemon wedges.

Pasta is a favorite partner for cooked chard in southern Italy. The chard can be steamed or boiled, but it's even better sauteed in olive oil, which moistens the pasta, preferably orecchiette (little ears) or gemelli (spaghetti twists). With or without cheese, it makes a terrific dish.

In Lebanese homes, chard leaves are wrapped around rice stuffings, just as grape leaves are. When time is short, chard is heated with canned garbanzo beans and sauteed onions for a quick, satisfying vegetarian entree.

Traditional cooks sometimes recommend making separate recipes from the stems of chard. If you buy just a bunch or two of chard, however, there won't be enough stems to prepare another dish. I find it easiest to use the leaves and stems in the same dish; I cut the stems into pieces and add them to the pan 2 or 3 minutes before the leaves.

PASTA WITH CHARD AND CHEESE (VEGETARIAN)

1 bunch chard (10 to 12 ounces), rinsed well

3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

2 medium garlic cloves, minced

1/2 pound orecchiette (about 3 cups) or medium shells

1/2 cup grated provolone cheese (about 1 1/2 ounces), plus bowl of grated provolone cheese for serving

Remove chard stems from leaves. If stems are stringy, peel them with vegetable peeler. Cut stems into 1/2-inch pieces. Pile leaves, cut them lengthwise twice, then cut them crosswise in 1/2-inch-wide pieces to make squares.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in large skillet over low heat. Add chard stems and saute 2 minutes. Add leaves and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Cover and cook, stirring often, about 3 minutes or until tender. Add 1 or 2 tablespoons water if pan becomes dry. Transfer chard to plate.

Add 1 tablespoon oil to skillet and heat over low heat. Add garlic and saute about 1 minute. Remove from heat. Return chard to pan and mix well. Cover and keep warm.

Cook pasta, uncovered, in large pan of boiling salted water over high heat, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes for orecchiette, or 5 to 8 minutes for shells, or until tender but firm to the bite. Drain well.

Transfer to heated serving bowl. Add chard mixture and toss. If you like, add remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Add 1/2 cup cheese and toss. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve immediately with additional grated cheese.

4 first-course or 2 main-course servings. Each of 4 servings:

363 calories; 349 mg sodium; 10 mg cholesterol; 15 grams fat; 46 grams carbohydrates; 12 grams protein; 0.76 gram fiber.

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