The Fridays seem to be coming awfully fast! Can you believe it's the middle of April already? In any case, since it's Friday, that means it's time yet again for another edition of Famous Fridays and my honoree today is acclaimed author and professional cook, David Tanis. If you read the NY Times Dining section, you may recognize him from his weekly City Kitchen column, but that's only the icing on the cake (pun intended!) as far as David's numerous achievements go. He's written three beautiful award-winning cookbooks, has worked as a chef with the famed Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in CA, and has also been featured in many other publications, such as Saveur, Gourmet and Fine Cooking. Yet, despite his distinguished pedigree, his recipes are pretty simple and entirely "doable" at home, focusing on seasonal ingredients and simple techniques, like this Swiss Chard Al Forno, which is sort of like a vegetable lasagna without the pasta--a thoroughly delicious and decadent side dish!!
Are you familiar with swiss chard? I never grew up eating it and when I'd see it in the grocery store, it just looked so wild and overflowing and intimidating--far too healthy to be tasty. But last year I worked up the courage to try it, tossing it into a soup I was making and I really really loved it--it reminds me of a cross between escarole and spinach and it's cool because you can use both the big leafy green parts and the tougher stalks as well, so there's very little waste. That's what you do here...well, first you make a bechamel sauce--sorry I'm getting ahead of myself! Anyway, the point is not to be a big fraidy-cat like me and give it a try!
Once you made the bechamel sauce, you cut the stems of the chard into strips and boil them for a few minutes to tenderize them.
Meanwhile you stir-fry the chopped chard leaves in some olive oil, minced garlic and red pepper flakes, until they begin to wilt.
Then you squeeze as much water out of the leaves as possible, and transfer them to a buttered casserole dish, making a nice even layer, finally topping with the chard stems--
Next you pour the bechamel sauce over it all and sprinkle with grated parmesan cheese and little bits of butter and bake for about half an hour.
The combination of tastes and textures here is what makes this side dish far from ordinary. There's the slight bitter crispness of the chard stems, the garlic spinach-like consistency of the wilted chard leaves, the creaminess of the smooth bechamel sauce and the crunchy crispy cheesiness of the Parmesan topping. Each bite is wonderful and truthfully, I could eat this a main course with a piece of bread and be totally happy. Try it this weekend and you'll see what I mean!! And pick up one of David Tanis' cookbooks and have some fun in the kitchen!!
David Tanis' Swiss Chard Al Forno-Famous Fridays
Makes 6 servings
Prep Time: 30 minutes; Bake Time: 30 minutes
For the Bechamel Sauce
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 2-3 cups milk (I used 1 %-it would be even creamier with 2% or whole)
- salt and pepper to taste
For the Casserole
- 2 pounds Swiss chard (not the rainbow kind)
- salt and pepper to taste
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- Pinch of red pepper flakes
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 3/4 cup grated Parmesan, Pecorino or Gruyere cheese
1. To make the bechamel: Place butter in a small saucepan and melt over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and let it cook for 1 minute, while whisking constantly. Add 2 cups of milk gradually, about 1/4 cup at a time, continually whisking as the sauce thickens. Add more milk if the sauce seems too thick. If you're using lowfat milk, you probably won't need to add the milk though--I didn't. Season well with salt and pepper and turn heat to low, whisking for another 10-15 minutes.
2. To make the casserole: Cut the leaves off from the stems of the swiss chard and set the leaves aside. Trim the ends of the stems and then cut the stems into 1/2 inch by 3 inch thick sticks. Rinse them well in a colander, drain and set them aside. Stack the leaves about 6 at a time, roll them up tightly and cut into 1 inch wide strips. Wash well in a colander, rinsing through with cold water a couple of times to remove any hidden dirt or grit.
3. In a medium sized pot, in salted water, boil the chard stems only for about 5 minutes, until tender. Drain and let them cool.
4. In a large, wide skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and let them sizzle for a minute, stirring. You don't want them to get brown. Now add the chard leaves, season with salt and pepper and saute until just wilted, about 2 minutes. Drain in a colander. When cool enough to handle, squeeze by handfuls to remove any excess liquid.
5. Heat the oven to 400ºF. Using 1 tablespoon of the butter, grease a 2 quart shallow baking dish. Place the squeezed out chard leaves in an even layer along the bottom of the baking dish. Add the cooked stems on top, spreading them out. Pour the bechamel sauce over the entire dish. Sprinkle the top with the grated cheese and dot with the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Bake for about 30 minutes, until bubbling and golden brown. Serve immediately.
6. I think you could make the whole casserole up to the point of actually baking it, the day before, kept tightly covered in the refrigerator, though I've never done it. Leftovers keep for several days in the refrigerator and can be reheated in a 350ºF oven until warm.
Note: Recipe adapted from One Good Dish by David Tanis. I left the nutmeg out of the bechamel and used 1% milk.