Today is probably the hottest since we arrived back – ironic, since we’ve just moved into September. This morning it was 44 degrees, but has now cooled to a more manageable 34, so I might yet venture out – according to our little weather station, the temperature has been as low as 27 at some point since midnight – not sure when that was, I must have missed it while I was asleep. When I had my morning swim, I complained that the pool was starting to get cold – a quick temperature check assured me it was still 32 degrees in the water – it must have been the super-hot air temperature confusing me. Either that or I really have turned into a total wimp.
The weather is so hot and dry that green vegetables can be hard to find here at this time of year. Apart from green beans that is – there were four varieties available when I called into the greengrocer yesterday. Unfortunately, there was little else, other than some broccoli that might have been green once, shortly before it turned a nasty shade of rusty yellow and started attracting Mr Fruit Fly and Friends. Oh, and some okra, but that’s right up there with oranges and soft-boiled eggs under the heading of ‘the complete culinary works of Satan’, so that stayed firmly off the menu.
Then I spotted a supplier unloading some bunches of beautiful Swiss chard in amongst the lettuce (obviously). Gorgeous crunchy white stalks and deep green leaves – I snaffled a large bunch straight out of the crate.
Now, I’m aware that those of you who live in the UK and subscribe to a veggie box scheme are often stumped for ideas to use this lovely vegetable, so this might add to your Chard repertoire.
Last night we had salmon for supper – I bought it on a whim and then couldn’t really decide what to do with it. As the new potatoes are fast becoming not very new at all – and tend to go a bit mealy if you just boil them – I decided to make a gratin as a side dish, thus cunningly rendering it unnecessary to gussy up the salmon in any way – plain-grilled with a squirt of fresh lemon and a few capers would be just the ticket. Chard lends itself very well to anything creamy or cheesy (or both), so I incorporated that along with a couple of beautifully pale, long skinny leeks. All that was needed on the side were a few frozen peas – job done.
You can pre-cook the veggies and assemble this earlier in the day if you wish. Then just whack it in the oven just before you are ready to eat. Equally, if you are in a hurry, you could do it all at the last minute and just brown it under the grill instead of baking it. If you are doing that, make sure to fully cook the potatoes, rather than slightly under-cooking them as the recipe says.
You could easily eat this as a main dish, rather than relegating it to a side position – it would be perfect with some green salad leaves and a sharp dressing. You could add other green veggies (courgettes would be good) or even replace the potatoes with sweet potatoes or cooked pasta. If you were serving this as a main dish, a scattering of crunchy cooked bacon or some anchovies would be a nice addition. I made way too much, which is excellent, as it means there are leftovers…
Cheesy potato, Swiss chard and leek gratin
Serves 3 – 4 as a side dish
1 large potato – washed and cut into bite-sized pieces (peel it if you want, I didn’t bother as the skins are still thin at the moment)
2 slim leeks (or if you only have fat ones, just cut them into slightly shorter lengths)
1 bunch chard (Swiss or rainbow is fine)
For the cheesy bechamel:
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons plain flour
About 250ml milk – you might need slightly less or slightly more
1 teaspoon Dijon or English mustard
1 generous pinch of nutmeg
Salt and white pepper (if you have it – we had to have black bits in ours, as we don’t get white pepper here)
A couple of generous handfuls of grated cheese – Cheddar, Gruyère or Comte would all be fine, as would freshly-grated Parmesan, but you’d need to use a little less. I used Turkish Eski Kasar.
Pre-heat the oven to 190C.
Put the potatoes into a saucepan large enough to take all the veggies. Just cover with water, cover with a lid and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and cook for about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, wash and trim the leeks and cut into 2cm lengths. Wash the chard and cut the white stalky ribs into 1cm lengths – that will make them roughly the same size as the leeks, as the ribs are quite wide.
Roll up the leafy parts and cut into 1cm shreds.
Once the potatoes have had their five minutes, add the leeks and just the ribs of the chard to the pan.
Cover and cook for another five minutes. Prod one of the potatoes with the tip of a sharp knife – you want them to be almost cooked (they will cook a little more in the oven). If you think they are ready, add the shredded green parts of the chard to the pan and cook everything for about 2 – 3 minutes more, until the chard has slightly wilted (the chard doesn’t need to be sitting in the water – the steam will cook it). Drain thoroughly (I left mine in the sieve while I made the sauce).
For the sauce, melt the butter in a small saucepan (I find non-stick works best, but you would need a silicone whisk or you will wreck your pan) and then add the flour. and whisk in until well combined and smooth.
Whisk until you have a smooth roux.
Cook over a very gentle heat for a minute or so. Start adding the milk a little at the time, whisking vigorously between additions – it might look slightly lumpy at first, but keep the faith – just add a little more milk and whisk again.
Keep adding more milk until you have the right consistency – you want it to be fairly thick but easily pourable.
Don’t forget it won’t thicken completely until it reaches boiling point, so if you need to add more milk at the end, that is fine. Once you have the right consistency, let it cook for a few minutes, stirring occasionally, over a very gentle heat – this ensures you don’t get left with any horrid raw flour flavour.
Add plenty of salt and pepper, the mustard and a generous pinch of nutmeg and stir until smooth – then add the cheese and stir until it has melted into the sauce and you have a smooth consistency.
Put the veggies into an oven-proof dish and pour over the sauce. You can sprinkle some extra grated cheese over the top if you wish. if the dish is very full, stand it on a sheet of foil on a baking tray in case of spillages.
Bake for about 20 minutes until the top is bubbling and golden brown. The sauce will be very hot, so it’s a good idea to let the dish stand for a minute or two before serving if you prefer the roof of your mouth to stay intact!