Friday, February 22, 2008

Chard labour

I acquired an allotment last autumn, or half an allotment to be exact. The day I heard about it I went down at sunset and looked at the huge piece of ground of which I had become the custodian. It seemed to stretch into the distance and I thought I would never fill it. I went home and sketched out my plans on paper. The next day I returned, looked at the plot, looked at the paper, and suddenly it was tiny!

I had to choose between asparagus and artichokes, between salsify and spinach, between brassicas and beets; I wanted a quince tree and a mulberry, an apricot, a peach… ohhhh and I wanted it NOW!

But you have to be sensible and get a grip. The microplot, as it now appeared, is just not big enough for everything, never mind a mulberry tree, but it is plenty big for my needs which are simple. I was however desperate to plant something there and then. I planted chard, that leafy green vegetable with the pale ribs. And surprisingly it grew and thrived. Oddly, I felt bad about picking it. It was growing along nicely and it seemed a shame to cut it off. But I got over that.

My chard doesn’t look like the kind you get in shops. To be honest it looks a bit manky, with some holes and some yellow leaves, but when you twist off the roots they come away with a satisfyingly juicy crunch that bodes well. The first batch I cooked was unbelievable – fresh fresh fresh.

What to make with it: the one thing I know about chard is that the Italians love it and put it into ravioli fillings.

I have just purchased The Oxford Companion to Italian Food by Gillian Riley and others, and I know Gillian to be a fine writer and researcher and an authority on Italian art. This book is a monumental work, the first in a series that follows in the steps of Alan Davidson’s magnificent Oxford Companion to Food. But it has nothing on chard, or swiss chard, or biete which is the Italian for chard. Nothing under vegetables, or greenery, or ravioli. It is missing. It is not there. I think this is a bit of an omission in what is supposed to be a compendium.

But it’s not hard to find a recipe for a ravioli filling that uses chard, and they are all pretty much the same.
For two people

Chard – about 4 washed and sliced handfuls
Ricotta – about three dessertspoons
1 egg
(You can add some chopped pine nuts too if you like.)

Wilt the chard in a tiny bit of water with the lid on
Drain, and press out extra water
When cool enough to handle chop finely
Add ricotta and egg to make a paste
Season generously

If you are going to make your own ravioli you really need a pasta machine. I speak as someone who disdained the things for ages, until today actually. But it is very very difficult to roll out pasta dough thin enough to make acceptable ravioli without one despite what Gillian Riley says. I know. So once the chard idea took root the next thing was a pasta machine acquisition and lo, the Great God Argos had one in his sale half price. Sometimes you just know that a thing is meant to be and that pasta machine had my name on it.

I thought it would be a bit of tin and it would fall to pieces immediately. But I was very wrong. Argos are selling a good heavy bit of chrome with a good solid clamp and I am absolutely delighted with it. But apparently they will not be stocking these things any more, which is why they are half price, so I take it that DIY pasta is now out of fashion.

Meanwhile I had a lot of fun making pasta so thin you could read the newspaper through it. I only used half of the pasta dough so tomorrow – the attachmenty thing for making tagliatelle!

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