Is there any hope for unfashionable silverbeet?

If you’re a silverbeet fan, it’s my public duty to warn you that it’s going out of fashion. You’ll probably know this already, because silverbeet (known as chard in the northern hemisphere) is the party guest no one wants to talk to, let alone go home with. It’s the DBW (dull-but-worthy) stalwart of the vegetable garden or greengrocer: there in abundance but no one’s favourite.

In July, the chief executive of one of New Zealand’s largest vegetable growers said that they’d stopped growing silverbeet in favour of softer leaves that were easier to love. I was so shocked by this I investigated further, finding mixed attitudes to silverbeet’s robust nature. I was pleased to find silverbeet lovers among the haters, including the Two Raw Sisters (Margo and Rosa Flanagan) and food writer, photographer and stylist extraordinaire Christall Lowe. You can read the results here.

I think we need to change our attitude towards this humble vegetable. Isn’t something that’s packed with useful vitamins and micronutrients, grows fast, withstands most weather conditions and can be used in a myriad of ways exactly the vegetable we need in climate change times?

I reckon there’s lots you can do with silverbeet. I finely chop it for salads when other greens are thin on the ground, or shove handfuls of chopped leaves into any slow-cooked dishes. Christall passed on a genius tip for how to deal with a surplus: she chops up the leaves and freezes them, then adds them frozen to sauces and stews, or her beautiful boil-up.

If you’re faced with a family of silverbeet haters, try these silverbeet chips. In my household, it’s a sure-fire way to make a bunch of silverbeet disappear. Then – in the spirit of zero-waste cooking – you can pickle the stems.

SPICY SILVERBEET CHIPS

  • A bunch of silverbeet, washed and dried well
  • 1 tablespoons olive oil
  • Flaky sea salt
  • Shichimi togarashi (Japanese five-spice) or chilli flakes

Heat the oven to 160C and line two trays with baking paper.

Remove any large stems from the silverbeet (use them in fridge pickles – recipe below), then cut the leaves into large, chip-sized pieces (they will shrink as they cook).

Put them in a bowl with the olive oil, then sprinkle over a little salt, and a generous shake or two of shichimi togarashi.

Mix well until the leaves are well-coated in the oil and spices, then spread them out on the prepared trays.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, turning the leaves over halfway through.  Remove to a rack to cool.  These are best the day they are made.

PICKLED SILVERBEET STEMS

These look prettiest if you use red or yellow stalks – but they’ll taste just the same as the white ones. This is a basic cold pickle brine, which uses a 1:1 ratio of water to vinegar, plus salt, sugar and flavourings (whole spices, garlic, chillies) to taste. 

  • ½ cup water
  • ¼ cup white wine vinegar
  • ¼ cup cider vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp salt
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • Whole coriander seeds, garlic cloves, dried chillies, parsley stalks, etc

Put everything in a small pot set over medium heat. Stir well until the mixture is hot and the salt and sugar are dissolved. Add the spices/flavourings of your choice – about 1 tsp whole seeds to a cup of brine. Taste it to make sure you like the flavour – adjust the salt and sugar accordingly.

Pack washed, sliced silverbeet stalks into a couple of sterilised jars  (wash jars in hot soapy water, rinse well and heat in a 120C oven for 20 minutes. Soak lids in boiling water for 10 minutes, then dry thoroughly with a clean tea towel). 

Make sure the stalks take up all the room in the jar, leaving about a 2cm gap at the top. Pour over the brine to cover the vegetables, making sure there are no air bubbles (tap the jar on the bench to pop them, or poke around with a skewer). Seal tightly and store in the fridge until you’re ready to eat. These pickles can be eaten after 48 hours – and you’re best to consume them within two months. They’re great in toasted sandwiches or eaten with crackers and cheese.

What’s your favourite thing to do with silverbeet?

ROASTED KŪMARA WITH RED ONION AND DATE SALSA

Are you still pretending to be in holiday mode? Me too. I like to think it’s an important component of my 2022 ‘intention’ to Do Less (intentions are the new resolutions, in case you’re wondering). As evidence of how I’m going so far, I’m still to send out my Christmas cards. I only just completed the deep-cleaning our house needed before every man and his dog visited us between Christmas and New Year and I still have 300 unread emails in my inbox. Before the holidays, this would have stressed me out. Now, I feel supremely unbothered. I’m taking the same approach to holiday – or at least, summer – eating. Less effort is often more, as they say. If you’re of a similar mindset, here’s a very easy salad to get someone else to make for you.

ROASTED KŪMARA SALAD WITH RED ONION AND DATE SALSA
This is great at barbecues (you can make it in advance and store in the fridge for up to a day before serving at room temperature) and any leftovers are excellent for lunch the next day. To up the protein content and make it more of a meal, add up to a cup of roasted nuts or pumpkin seeds when you combine the roasted kūmara and salsa. Serves four.

For the kūmara:
800g peeled and diced kūmara
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp brown sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
Salt and pepper

For the salsa:
1 medium red onion, peeled and diced
A generous pinch of salt and sugar
2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
Let sit 10 mins
3/4 cup dates, chopped
3cm piece fresh ginger, finely grated
Two handfuls fresh parsley, finely chopped
1-2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Heat the oven to 190C. Put the kūmara, first measure of olive oil, brown sugar and cinnamon in a bowl and toss to combine. Tip out onto a large baking tray and season generously with salt and pepper. Roast for 25 minutes, shaking the tray halfway through cooking. Set aside to cool.

While the kūmara is cooking, make the salsa. Put the red onion, salt and sugar in a small bowl and stir to combine. Pour over the vinegar. Leave to steep for 10 minutes, then add the chopped dates, ginger, parsley and olive oil. Stir to combine.

When the kūmara is cool enough to touch, transfer it to a serving bowl. Toss through the salsa and let sit for at least 15 minutes before serving. 

Plum, pomegranate and pumpkin seed salad

In Summer Cooking, Elizabeth David says that ‘cold stewed plums must be one of the dullest dishes on earth. Accompanied by custard it is one of the most depressing’.

I don’t mind a cold stewed plum myself (and cold proper custard is heavenly). What I find depressing is biting into a purple-skinned plum and discovering that its flesh is golden and mushy. In my opinion, a good plum – stewed or not – is a confounding blend of sweet and sour, with firm, juicy flesh in shades of pale pink, bright crimson or cardinal red.

If you’re a plum-lover – or have a tree and can’t keep up with eating them – here’s a salad we’ve been enjoying a lot in the last couple of weeks.

Plum, pomegranate and pumpkin seed salad

This is the sort of thing you can throw together very easily and people think you’re some kind of salad savant. You can add and subtract ingredients as suits your palate and pantry: some soft cheese might be good, or olives, or even some cooked quinoa (yes, really, though you might want to add a bit more dressing).

1 red onion, finely sliced

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp caster sugar

3 Tbsp red wine vinegar

3 large handfuls baby spinach leaves, washed and dried

2-3 red-fleshed plums, cut into slim wedges

1/2 cup pumpkin seeds, toasted in a dry pan until golden

For the dressing:

1 clove garlic, crushed to a paste with a pinch of flaky sea salt

1 Tbsp pomegranate molasses

3 1/2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Put the onions, salt, sugar and red wine vinegar in a small bowl. Stir to combine, then cover and set aside for at least 15 minutes (longer is fine, though put in the fridge if it’s going to be more than an hour).

When the onions have steeped and you’re nearly ready to eat, put the spinach leaves and plums in a salad bowl. Drain the vinegar from the onions into a small jar. Add the crushed garlic and pomegranate molasses. Shake to mix, then add the olive oil. Shake again until emulsified.

Add the onions to the bowl and drizzle over 3-4 tablespoons of the dressing. Toss gently, then scatter over the pumpkin seeds. Toss again and serve. Serves 3-4.

Fancy more plum recipes? You could try this roasted black doris plum and coconut ice cream, these mulled plums or this blast from the past – a Black Forest plum sandwich!

Pearl barley, lemon and avocado salad

Spring is a tricky time of year for salad lovers. In theory we should all be eating new baby greens and skipping about the place like newborn lambs. In practice, at least in Wellington, we’re as likely to be huddled over the soup pot muttering incantations to the weather gods. The following salad is my answer to this kind of climatic conundrum – it makes use of the things that have now sprung back into season (avocados, parsley, lemons), but it has enough heft to keep you warm on a less-than-optimal day. It also makes a great take-to-work lunch, even if it’s not warm enough to sit outside and eat it.

Pearl barley, lemon and avocado salad

Serves 4-6

Pearl barley is brilliant for salads like this as long as you remember to keep it in balance with the other ingredients – I can happily eat it unadorned but that can be a bit confronting for first-timers. I aim for a 50-50 ratio: 50 per cent barley, 50 per cent other things. Meyer lemons (actually a lemon-mandarin hybrid) are sweeter than ‘real’ lemons and have golden skin and flesh.

1 1/4 cups pearl barley

3 large Meyer lemons, washed

6 spring onions, finely chopped

1 avocado

3 big handfuls fresh mint and flat leaf parsley, finely chopped

4-5 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Put the pearl barley in a sieve and rinse well under the cold tap. Tip the barley into a medium saucepan and add 2 1/2 cups boiling water. Set over medium heat and simmer for 25-30 minutes, until the barley is tender and has absorbed most of the water. Set aside to cool completely.

While you’re waiting, cut one of the lemons into small dice – including the skin, but making sure to discard any pips. Put into a bowl. Add the zest and juice of the other two lemons into the bowl, plus the spring onions. Peel and stone the avocado and dice the flesh into the lemon mixture. When the barley has cooled, add this to the bowl with 4 Tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Fold together gently, then stir through the chopped herbs. Taste – add more oil if necessary and season well with salt and pepper. Pile onto a dish and serve. Any leftovers should be kept in a tightly covered container in the fridge. The avocado may brown a little but it will still taste good on day two.

Burger Wellington – the book

If you’ve been wondering why I haven’t been around much lately, I can now reveal the reason. I’ve been neck-deep in the secrets of Wellington’s best burgers for the Burger Wellington cookbook – a collection of more than 50 recipes from the culinary capital’s decade-long Visa Wellington On a Plate festival. And now, it’s available to pre-order!

Making a book is a bit like raising a child – it takes a village. This one wouldn’t have happened without the amazing generosity of the restaurants, cafes and bars who generously gave up their recipes for me to translate into quantities and instructions for home cooks (one recipe initially had a recipe for cucumber pickle that started with, ‘take 50 telegraph cucumbers’, so that gives you an idea of the scale adjustments needed). The brilliant Jeff McEwan took the photos and the incredible Wellington Culinary Events Trust made the rest happen, along with the amazing assistance of Mary Egan Publishing and Garage Project (beers and burgers are a natural fit, after all).

You can pre-order a copy of Burger Wellington – or wait to get your hands on one in early August. I can’t wait to see it!