Welcome to austinagrodolce … My family and I garden with more intention and enthusiasm than allocated budget or overall design plan. It shows. Wildlife populations don't seem to notice our lack of cohesive design, they just like the native plants here. It seems by growing local we've thrown out a welcome mat. Occasionally, we're surprised at who (and what) shows up.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Rainbow Charred

If you've ever heard Garrison Keillor speaking in his oh so dulcet tones about the Lutherans in Lake Wobegon, you'll know how very surprised I was to sidle up to a pot luck table at my own Lutheran church one evening and spy something exotic on the table.

When I say "exotic" in this context you'd be forgiven if you thought I meant jello "with fruit in it!", or cookie bars with "nuts on top!", but no, I am talking here about Rainbow Swiss chard with raisins and pine nuts. I didn't recognize it immediately but rather found out after tasting it and promptly hunting down the answer from the guy who'd placed the dish on the table. Maybe other folks didn't recognize it either or maybe it was because there were so many families with young children at this particular event, but at the end of the meal the chard in the casserole remained fairly untouched.I'd done my best - had two generous helpings - to respectably empty out the container. Going home from a Lutheran pot luck with anything other than heartburn and a scraped clean dish may not be a sin, but it isn't exactly a tribute. We Lutherans are known for strong coffee, harmonic hymn singing and our very hearty appetites. Leaving a pot luck with your own leftovers is just not kosher.

So I did my helpful, conscientious concerned older church type lady duty and I asked if I could take some home? "Take it all" was my answer, "we just had this for dinner the other day and you are welcome to it!". Win/win. I got the chard, they left with their potluck reputation intact.

Turns out this family had recently returned from a trip to Egypt where they'd eaten something similar. When the dad saw some chard in the grocery store he went to Epicurious.com and found this recipe that was very close. At that point I'd never heard of Epicurious, so I went home with a delicious side dish, and a new online recipe source to boot.

Epicurious.com, besides the suggestively cool name, is the online home of Gourmet and Bon App├ętit magazines. When I saw that, I was concerned the recipe would be complicated and require techniques I was not yet comfortable with. To my delight, Chard with raisins and pine nuts was a simple recipe with easy prep and a short ingredient list. I printed it out, made a note of my friend's substitution of chicken broth for water and was ready to go.

Which means we've had chard with raisins and pine nuts lots of times since then, right? Wrong. Like Lutheran Potluck diners, our household has not historically been novelty food friendly. I liked to eat chard fixed this one way, yes, but I was completely intimidated by the variety of chard offered in the grocery store. I was put off by their gigantic size and by my lack of history with this veggie. The chard in the store did not remotely resemble what I'd brought home cooked. I mean it was his pot, my luck. I'd only had chard that once. What if I messed up and my family hated it? Time passed and we remained chardless.

Enter the advantages of cooking my way week to week through a CSA basket from a local farm. The unspoken agreement between my husband and I is that we will try this out for a season, eat everything we get in the basket whether we think we like it already or not, and understand that it might take 2 or more tries at preparation styles or presentation to find a winning way to offer the veggies as part of our regular dinner line ups. Like turnips. Roasted turnips were not well received by both of us, no, but scalloped? My husband handed out high accolades, "you can fix this anytime". And went for seconds. When Basket Number 5 hit my kitchen from Tecolote Farms, inside was an amazing bunch of rainbow chard. Bingo! I found the recipe and threw caution to the winds. Since this chard arrived in a CSA basket, it came with built in permission to cook as a novice and offer the proceeds. We didn't choose the chard - it chose us.

I've gotten a lot healthier emotionally operating under the "hey - it came in the basket" premise. This means I am no longer taking it personally when my husband doesn't like something I've cooked or prepared for dinner. In years past my kids would try to fend off inquiries as to why there was a relatively intact dinner plate returned to the kitchen after a meal. "You didn't like it?" I would ask (peevishly - I'll own that). "I liked the salad!" they'd say brightly, backing quickly away from the kitchen. "The salad is just dressed lettuce!" I'd yell at their rapidly retreating forms, "that's not cooking!".

Yes I will confess to you here and now - for years I was one of those "love me - love my cooking" Mommies. This was complicated by the fact that everybody but me in this family used to be incredibly picky eaters. I am not all that adventurous an omnivore by any means, it took me a decade of watching before I even tried sushi, but for a long time I was the one out in front of the group, leading and sometimes dragging them along to "just TRY some!".

Now I am much better. (Well, recovering.) We take it one dinner at a time. My kids, out and cooking on their own, have well developed palates despite their self imposed narrowed start. Now they are just as often the ones encouraging me to try out something new.

My husband tries to find something positive to say about every dinner (he usually does like the salad) and I try not to glower when I hear him say "ehh - not exactly my favorite".  As a matter of fact, I've learned if he does not spontaneously praise a meal, I probably ought to just let it go that night. Unless I want to pick a fight. Which, on a good night, I absolutely do not. Meals are to be about warmth and nurture and companionability, not "if you love me you will eat it and lie and say you LOVED it".

My point - and I did have a point here somewhere - oh, right. The chard.

Meanwhile, back on the farm, they raised the chard and put it in our baskets. I found the recipe I'd downloaded so long ago off epicurious.com, printed it out, and got started.

In my defense, uncooked rainbow chard is gorgeous. I felt like I was playing with crayons the colors were so brilliant. I planted chard in our garden but it is the ordinary variety with white stems. These rainbow beauties have stems and leaf veins that are pink, yellow, orange. Fun to look at and work with. Which I offer by way of explanation for the charred pine nuts. My husband, a (mostly) retired neurosurgeon, is a pretty sharp guy. A trained medical observer. "What are these little burned thingies?" he asked as I was stirring a mountain of chopped chard into the pot.

I admitted to you I am "recovering". I stretched the truth.

"Those", I stated with forced cheerfulness, "are French Roast pine nuts!".

The first step in this easy recipe is to chop the chard. The second step was to toast the pine nuts in some oil "over moderate heat, stirring constantly".

My eyes were clearly dazzled by the colors because somehow I read that recipe to say "throw some pine nuts into a too hot pan and forget to stir them. Continue to ignore them while you play with the chard until you smell them burning, then curse and remove.".

Simple mistake, yeah?

Anyway, the chard dish was good - I added some leftover rice I had into the mix wishing it was couscous - this would taste awesome over couscous - and didn't realize until the next day that I had totally brain clouded and not thought to substitute loquats in for the golden raisins. Next time...I will hopefully remember to do it that way next time.... Our dinner also featured some Nilgai sausage provided us by "our friend the Hunter" and roasted baby carrots. Real babies - not those lathed down critters from the store.

And pardon me for one more sidebar but what do you suppose they do with the carrot shavings they must have left over after lathing thousands of carrot pieces down to look like they popped out of the ground so cute and small? There must be giant hills of carrot leavings behind a factory somewhere. Do they recycle those into compost? Is that where the color comes from in those V-8 Tropical juice blends? I am curious, orange....
As far as our Adventures in Chard - (cue Gone with the Wind theme), as God is my witness - there will be a next time. Although my husband left much of his chard on the plate (he said he was "full" and I left it at that - see? Recovering!) I am chard averse no longer, which is a very good thing seeing as I have 5 heads of it growing at a rapid rate in my garden. I will try preparing it some other way for our next chard exposure, and perhaps will not be similarly recipe blinded by my more modest non-rainbowed stems. Live and learn! (and eat)....

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