Found hanging on the rafters in FruitWorld last week, large bunches of green chard — stems long and intact, much like you might find them in an average French market at this time of the year — and unlike the more stunted variety you will find in an average English supermarket. The French, in the SW at least, have a bit more of a thing for the white stalks than for the leaves and serve them gratinated or as accompaniment, but with merit in their own right. Closer to the Mediterranean, the leaves become more important, and may be used for a variety of purposes — baked in an olive crust pie or added to a soup for example. I like both leaves and stems (ribs is the technical term) together, and often make a tart with slow cooked chard stalks, brightened up with the green of the leaves and some soft white cheese. This weekend my influences were all over the map — a filo pastry shell and some feta cheese from Greece, a little cream that might be more at home somewhere further north, and a touch of vibrant southern saffron to add a little sunshine.
For an elegant but simple tart the possibilities are various if not endless, and I rarely make the same mix twice. Different cooking containers, varieties of cheese or cream, textures, aromatic flavours, or combinations of ingredients can be added or subtracted from the mix — the guide is what is available to you, your time, imagination, and what you like to eat.
A container is required, I normally use a pastry crust — butter shortcrust is a staple (and blind baking a normal first step), but this time I used a kind of filo, which is as easy as following the instructions on the packet — no rolling required, and if it rips, you scrunch it up and patch it and it will taste all the better for it; the quality of the filo matters — find one that has not been previously frozen and a brand you feel you can trust.
To make the filling: finely slice an onion, some garlic if you like a more powerful base, and the washed ribs of a bunch of chard (separated from their leaves); sweat them over a low heat — for what normally seems ages — in a little good oil and/or butter — until they are meltingly soft but not yet taking on any colour; if you want to add colour and additional richness, you can add a little saffron to the mix. Season (very lightly — there are more flavours yet to come) with some salt, pepper and perhaps a little nutmeg for this version that will also accommodate spinach, eggs and cream.
In the meantime, wash and wilt the chard leaves and a generous bunch of spinach, leave to drain and cool a little, then chop and add these to the (cooling) onion mix.
When the pastry case is prepared, mix two or three beaten eggs into the rest of the prepared ingredients, and crumble in enough Feta cheese to ensure an even colour mix with the vegetables (remember that Feta is super salty — you don’t want the pieces too large, and you only want enough to ensure each mouthful will have a note of Feta); add a little thick cream if you want to enrich it further — enough to help bind, not enough to drown — and then spread the filling in the prepared pastry case, bake in a pre-heated oven (180ºC or equivalents) for as long as it takes for the filling to set and the pastry to be crisp and at least a little golden — about 10-15 minutes for filo, potentially a little longer for a shortcrust.
Resist the temptation to eat hot from the oven — this is a dish best served at room temperature, and with a salad alongside, tomato if you can find a hot house cherry variety at this time of year that has sufficient flavour to be worth the bother of putting it on the plate.