I tried to make caramels yesterday. It was a spectacular disaster. Tasty judging by the mess I licked off of my fingers , but also crazy sticky, goopy, runny, and in sum, disastrous. I knew it was not something I ought to be doing, even before I started. A large batch of caramels was the last thing we needed around the house to tempt us to snack on. And, I knew I had a focus group guide to edit and a conceptual model to draft and shouldn’t be distracting myself.
And yet, somehow I found myself in the kitchen caramelizing sugar to a dark amber and pouring it into a foiled pan and patiently waiting for it to cool and set. But, it never set. It remained barely stiffer than the consistency of caramel sauce, so when I took it out to cut it and wrap it, it flowed like an unstoppable saccharine mudslide all over the cutting board, the counter, my hands, everywhere. Obviously the universe was sending me a signal. ’Get back to work. Cook vegetables.’ At least, that was how I interpreted it.
But, if I were interpreting the universe correctly, this meant that I suddenly needed to find some veg to cook up (I decided to ignore the first part of the message because I didn’t feel emotionally ready to look at my conceptual model again for at least another hour).
A quick perusal of the refrigerator revealed a perky bunch of Swiss chard. And the leftover cream from the botched caramels. Creamed chard! Actually, I had been meaning to make creamed chard for months and never gotten around to it because my chard somehow always finds itself sauteed with garlic and a squeeze of lemon juice.
But, then I had a better idea. You see, in my ongoing acquisition of kitchen dishes and utensils that I probably don’t technically need but that, when it comes down to it, are rather nice to have, I have suddenly wound up with a shiny new enameled gratin pan. The perfect size for baking a batch of gratineed Swiss chard. Now that sounded delicious.
Taking creamy greens and baking them with a touch of cheese gives them an extra dose of rich, rustic, country, stick to your ribs goodness. But, if you add the cream and cheese with a light touch, you can also keep the dish from getting too heavy. You want to caress your greens with cream, you see, not strangle them with it. You then scatter the creamy greens with buttery bread crumbs and bake the whole thing for a while (in your spanking new gratin dish, of course – but once you start to eat the chard you’ll forget about the dish entirely!).
When the gratin comes out, you have layers of silky tender Swiss chard, practically melting into their coat of creamy sauce while the crumbs will have crisped up into a golden crunchy topping. Sturdy and rustic and bursting with green goodness.
And I had practically no sooner thought the thought “chard gratin” than I looked down to discover that I was finely slicing leaves and heating butter in a pot. A half hour later I slid it bubbling and fragrant out of the oven, my caramel debacle completely behind me.
This was what I had actually wanted all along! This gratin would be a perfect accompaniment to any number of dishes, a roast or a chicken, broiled fish, grilled steaks. Or you may just eat it right out of the gratin pan with a fork and a piece of bread to scoop up any drips of extra sauce while contemplating whether or not the universe was serious when it had told you to get back to work.
Swiss Chard Gratin (serves about 6)
- 2 bunches of Swiss Chard (they usually comes in bunches of around a pound)
- 4 Tbs. butter, divided
- 2 Tbs. flour
- 1/2 chicken (or vegetable) stock
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 cup grated Gruyere cheese
- a pinch of salt and curry powder (you don’t taste this really, it just subtly deepens the flavor)
- several grinds of black pepper
- 1/2 cup bread crumbs
- Preheat your oven to 375F. Wash the chard and remove the stems below the leaves. Pile the chard up, and slice it into thin ribbons. Add the chard with a Tbs. of water to a pot and cook, covered, over medium heat until the chard has wilted. About 5-8 minutes.
- Then remove the cover from the pot, and cook stirring a couple minutes more, until the water has all evaporated. Add in 2 Tbs. of butter, and let it melt. Stir in the flour, and get the leaves all coated. Let this cook for about 2 minutes, or a titch more, to make sure the flour gets cooked. Then, slowly stir in the stock, scraping up any bits on the bottom. Let this cook for a couple minutes, until thickened. Then, stir in the cream.
- Take the pot off the heat and stir in the cheese and the curry powder, salt and pepper. Spread the creamy greens into a baking pan or gratin pan. Then, melt the remaining 2 Tbs. of butter, toss the bread crumbs with the melted butter and then sprinkle this all over the top of the chard. Pop the whole thing into the oven and bake until it’s all bubbly and the breadcrumbs have turned golden, 25-30 minutes. Serve hot.