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?

OVEN-ROASTED KŪMARA WITH DATE, CHILLI AND CORIANDER SEED BUTTER

Conventional wisdom – at least in my household – is that there’s nothing better than a roasted potato. Call me contrary, but I reckon a roasted kūmara knocks a roasted spud out of the park every time. Even our dog, who has become a bit of a dietary fusspot in recent months, loves them (though, to be fair, he wolfs down plain, boiled kūmara too).

Here’s my new favourite way to eat roasted kūmara – bathed in sweet, salty, spiced butter. 

ROASTED KŪMARA WITH DATE, CHILLI AND CORIANDER BUTTER

There are lots of absolute whopper kūmara out there, but I think the smaller ones (about 20cm long) are best for this recipe. Choose the purple-skinned variety (confusingly, these are called ‘Original Red’) as these are best for roasting or turning into chips. Keeping the skin on means saving time and nutrients – just give them a scrub under the tap, trim off any hairy bits and dry them well with a clean tea towel before proceeding with the recipe.

  • For the kūmara:
  • 4 small red kūmara (look for the Original Red variety)
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • For the butter:
  • 125g butter (softened, but not melted)
  • ½ cup finely chopped dates
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
  • Finely grated zest of 1 small orange
  • A good pinch of chilli flakes or ½ a small red chilli, finely chopped
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oven to 200C. Rub the kūmara all over with olive oil and set on a small baking tray. Bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes, until the kūmara are soft (they should yield to the pressure of a finger).

While the kūmara are baking, put the butter, dates, coriander seeds, orange zest and chilli in a small bowl. Beat until well combined. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside (this can be done in advance and kept, covered, in the fridge for up to a week).

When the kūmara are cooked, remove them from the oven. Cut down the centre of each one and dollop a quarter of the butter on top. Serve immediately. Serves 4 as a side dish (or serve one per person with a green salad for lunch).

Hot tip: if you don’t have or don’t fancy kūmara, take it from me that the butter is DELICIOUS on hot toast or crumpets. Especially crumpets that are a little bit charred at the edges.

Want more kūmara inspo?

Here’s a love letter to kūmara that includes some handy advice about varieties and growing your own.

You might also fancy:

Asparagus with mustard crème fraîche

Do you snap or cut? Peel or shave? The start of the asparagus season often ignites debate between cooks about whether it’s better to cut off the woody ends (gives a neat finish) or snap them (feels satisfying, but has high potential for wastage). Others claim using a vegetable peeler or sharp knife to shave off any tough, stringy bits is a better option.

Personally, I think it depends on the asparagus; spears as fat as your fingers are likely to have woodier ends, while the very slender ones will need the tiniest of trims. Any ends you do trim off can be used in vegetable stock or – according to Love Food Hate Waste, because I haven’t tried this one myself – turned into asparagus stalk pesto.  

If you’re challenged in the kitchen equipment stakes and don’t have a deep pot (or steamer insert) to cook the asparagus standing up, try cooking them in one layer in a deep frying pan instead. 

ASPARAGUS WITH MUSTARD CREME FRAICHE

Serves 2-4

This is a fast way to dress up asparagus, whether you’re serving it as a side dish for four or a main course for two. The sauce can be made in advance and stored, covered, in the fridge for up to three days. 

  • 500g fresh asparagus, ends trimmed
  • For the creme fraiche sauce:
  • 1 small clove garlic, peeled and crushed to a paste with ½ tsp salt
  • 1 generous tsp Dijon mustard
  • Finely grated zest of 1 lemon and 1 tsp freshly squeezed juice
  • ½ cup creme fraiche
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Cook the asparagus in lightly salted boiling water until al dente – about 5-6 minutes for spears of medium thickness (skinny ones will be done in 3-4 minutes and their thicker compatriots will need 6-7 minutes). 

While the asparagus is cooking, put the crushed garlic, mustard, lemon zest and juice in a small bowl. Mix well, then fold in the creme fraiche. Season to taste with black pepper.

Drain the asparagus and divide between two (or four) plates. Serve with a generous spoonful of the sauce.

TIP: This also works if you want to eat the asparagus cold: just cook the asparagus until al dente, then drain immediately under cold running water. When the asparagus is cold, wrap it loosely in a clean, dry tea towel and store in the fridge until ready to serve.

Smashed peas on toast

Got smashed recently? Nah, me neither. It’s not so good for us in these already anxious times (and it is Dry July, after all). Personally, I got really tired of all the ‘wine mum’ memes on social media during lockdown. There’s nothing like being encouraged to join a tribe to make me want to run screaming in the other direction. I also interviewed a couple of experts who had some sobering things to say about using alcohol as a lockdown coping mechanism. It’s more common sense than rocket science, but both seem to be in short supply.

A much cheaper, healthier and family-friendly way to get smashed is to try these peas on toast. You can be fancy, and serve them on little crackers or crostini when you have a few people over for dinner, or you can turn them into dinner if you eat them with a poached or fried egg on top. As it is, this amount serves two generously – and makes a good working from home lunch. Cheers! 

Smashed peas on toast

I prefer baby peas (sweeter and cuter) to ordinary ones for this dish, because the big ones can be a bit mealy. But use whatever you have. 

  • 4 tsp butter or olive oil
  • 1 large clove garlic, peeled and sliced
  • Finely chopped red chilli, to taste (optional)
  • A handful of fresh parsley and mint, finely chopped
  • 2 cups frozen peas
  • 2 Tbsp water
  • A handful of fresh parsley and mint, finely chopped
  • 4 slices bread – preferably baguette, pita, or wholegrain toast

Melt half the butter or olive oil in a small pot set over medium heat. Add the garlic, followed by the peas and the water. Crush the peas with a potato masher or a fork as they cook, until you have a rough puree (this will take about three minutes). Stir in the chopped herbs. While the peas are cooking, toast the bread and spread with the remaining butter or olive oil. Arrange the toast on a plate and pile the crushed peas on top, allowing for a bit of artistic scattering. Season well with salt and pepper and serve.

Crunchy cheese, potato and onion bake

When all this is over, I’m going to declare a fatwa on potatoes and cheese. We’re a potato-based household at the best of times, but right now it feels like we’re practically living on them. I’d do anything for a bit of variation on the cheese front, too. Just before lockdown started I had a wedge of my favourite Whitestone Aged Windsor Blue that I ate all too quickly. And oh, to be able to eat any of the cheeses I ate in France last year…

However, in the spirit of being grateful for small mercies, even the most ordinary potatoes and cheese can make life seem a little brighter. This is a riff on my sister-in-law Jenny’s famous cheesy potatoes (I aspire to make them as well as she can). If you squint, it’s sort of a poor man’s tartiflette – I made this Thomasina Miers’ tartiflette many times in France with enormous wheels of reblochon last year. And one day, I will again.

CRUNCHY CHEESE, POTATO AND ONION BAKE

Serves 4

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 45 minutes

If you’ve got cold leftover roast or boiled potatoes, you can use them instead – just blanch the spinach or silverbeet in boiling water, then add it to the potatoes and crush. Also feel free to swap the bacon for ham (or a small amount of anchovies, or olives). Other good additions include cherry tomatoes, little florets of broccoli or cauliflower, chunks of other cheeses – whatever your lockdown cupboards or fridge offers up.

  • 5 Tbsp olive oil
  • 3 large onions, peeled and sliced thinly
  • 6-8 large agria potatoes, scrubbed and cut into large chunks
  • 200g spinach or silverbeet, washed and roughly chopped
  • 150g streaky bacon, diced
  • 2 cups grated tasty cheese

Heat the oven to 200C. Put 3 Tablespoons of the olive oil and the sliced onions in a roasting dish and toss well. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes while you’re getting the potatoes ready.

While the onions are cooking, cook the potatoes in boiling salted water for 15 minutes, until just about falling apart when prodded with a fork. Drop the spinach into the pot and cook for two minutes, then tip the whole thing into a colander and leave to drain.

Remove the onions from the onion and take most of them out of the dish. Layer some potatoes and spinach on top, crushing the potatoes with a fork, followed by some grated cheese and bacon. Repeat these layers, ending with cheese and bacon. Season well with lots of black pepper, drizzle over the remaining olive oil and bake in the oven for 40 minutes, until everything is crunchy. Eat with lots of hot mustard and something green.