March is a difficult month. No longer winter and not yet spring, it is a kind of limbo in which the promise of spring may be curbed suddenly by bites of cold. The memory of cherry tomatoes exploding juicily in my teeth is as faint as Big Bang's echo. Counting the months that separate me from the next basket of those edible gems or golden zucchini blossoms or pastel peas is depressing. I have a treasure of frozen peaches, berries and strained roasted tomatoes to keep me from despairing ("Tomatoes as Comfort Food," Oct. 6, 2011), but March still feels like a long march in a stark landscape.
Thanks, Mother Earth, for chard and kale! The fact that those leafy greens are available year-round may tempt us to dismiss them as unexciting, a sort of background noise that never coalesces into a melody. But their intense green spanning the range from brilliant yellow chard to dark Tuscan kale means there is a green for every mood. Better yet, mixing various shades of green yields a pleasant chorus of voices singing in the kitchen.
And that's mostly what I like to do with rainbow chard from our local farmers and kale from my serendipitous vegetable patch. A few years ago, when I first decided to grow some food in our yard, I planted a few rows of red Russian kale seedlings. They did well, providing me with a bountiful harvest of gray-green leaves in exchange for intermittent care. I let some plants go to seed and those seeds sprouted the next harvest. I've harvested kale almost continuously ever since.
I love watching the tiny, lacy leaves sprout on their purple stems. Thinning a small patch means I have baby kale available. Later on, I harvest larger leaves regularly. And when the plants are nearing the end of their cycle, I harvest kale blossoms. Kale is a constant gift.
My chard does not grow as exuberantly. I have a few plants and harvest small leaves to enrich a frittata or a savory tart. I rely on local farmers to provide large leaves and tall stalks, the latter going into a gratin ("Charmed by Chard," June 9, 2011), one of my favorite side dishes.
I am always on the lookout for ideas that allow me to use them in large quantities. Enter caldo verde, a traditional Portuguese soup, often referred to as Portuguese kale soup. The name means "green broth," but to my Italian ears it is "green warmth," which makes the dish even more appealing on a chilly evening.
Traditionally, the soup includes potatoes and Portuguese sausages (chouriço or linguiça). My personal taste veers towards vegetables, so in my recipe you will find no sausages, but shiitake mushrooms and carrots keeping company to potatoes. I mix kale with chard and, if possible, I supplement the homegrown red Russian with some Tuscan kale. The result is a thick, green-marbled soup with a layered flavor, which, come to think about it, could be a nice addition to the St. Patrick's Day table.
Ingredients and method:
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 large leek, white and light green portion, sliced into half-moons and thoroughly rinsed
3 medium shallots, chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1/3 pound fresh shiitake mushrooms, cleaned, caps thinly sliced and stems minced (I have also used a mix of shiitake and black trumpet mushrooms)
½ pound potatoes (like Yukon Gold), well scrubbed and diced
½ pound carrots, well scrubbed, skin scraped, trimmed, and thinly sliced (if you have a mandoline, this is the perfect job for it)
1 bay leaf
2 cups light chicken stock or vegetable broth
3 cups water
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste (taking into account the saltiness of the stock/broth)
¾ pound kale and rainbow chard (see below for quantity details)
A generous squeeze of fresh Meyer lemon juice
Warm up the olive oil in a soup pot, add the leek and shallots and stir well. Cook gently for 5 minutes, stirring often. Add the garlic and stir. Cook gently for 2 minutes.
Add the mushrooms to the pot and stir. After 1 minute, cover the pot. Continue cooking for 4 minutes, stirring every now and then.
Add the potatoes and carrots to the pot and stir well. Add the bay leaf, stock/broth and water. Bring the pot to a boil and cook gently until the potatoes and carrots are tender and easily smashed with the back of a spoon, 30 minutes or so.
While the soup cooks, wash the greens and separate the leaves from the stems. (Set aside the chard stems and make a gratin or something else with them.) Spread a large leaf on the cutting board (chard works best in this role), then layer 5-7 leaves of either kale or chard on top of it. Start rolling from the base of the leaves and make a tight bundle. Hold the roll with one hand and with the other cut as-thin-as-you-can slices across.
Season the soup with salt and pepper, to taste. Remove the bay leaf. Process the soup with an immersion blender, leaving some texture. Bring soup back to a boil.
Add as much of the pile of cut greens as the soup and your tastes can handle. Simmer until the greens are tender, 3-5 minutes. Add the Meyer lemon juice and stir well.
Add salt and pepper to taste and serve.
Need I mention how healthy and nutritious it is?
Simona Carini also writes about her adventures in the kitchen on her blog www.pulcetta.com.
ONLINE ONLY LINKS
"TOMATOES AS COMFORT FOOD"
"CHARMED BY CHARD"