These City Lights

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Last summer…

… before Zack’s mom got sick
… before spending weeks driving to and from the hospital in the Oklahoma heat
… before my sister moved into our one-bedroom flat with us
… before my grandfather was hospitalized for brain hemorrhaging
… before my mom came down with MRSA again
… before the really terrible extraction of my wisdom teeth
… before, before, before

… I planted some Bright Lights Swiss chard. It struggled in the unusual heat–even in my shaded plot at the community garden, the sun scorched bare spots into its leaves, laying bare the cellulose skeleton beneath the deep green foliage.

I didn’t harvest it. I didn’t harvest it, because I had never cooked with Swiss Chard before, and trying new things requires overcoming inertia. I didn’t harvest it, because everything in our lives tumbled end over end for months as we scrabbled desperately for some kind of equilibrium. I didn’t harvest it, and I didn’t harvest it, and I didn’t harvest it, and then suddenly it was spring again and the sickly chard of last summer was towering gloriously over the red pansies like I had planned it that way.

So last week, I harvested some chard.

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I had planted the chard originally because I’d seen pictures of jars of pickled chard stems, and they were gorgeous. Now, having my own wealth of beautiful chard stems, I decided to try my hand at it. I used a variation of my favorite quick-pickle brine, adapted from the brine used for pickling carrots at Tartine Bakery in the Mission in San Francisco. It’s not acidic enough to be made shelf-stable, but they last for a long time in the fridge.

The pickled chard stems turned out so beautiful that it’s almost a shame to eat them–they’re nearly iridescent.

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Makes 2 half-pints

  • Swiss chard stems
  • 1 cup of water
  • 1/2 cup white wine vinegar
  • 2 cloves of garlic, sliced
  • Peppercorns, mustard seeds, and red pepper flakes (in amounts you find pleasing)
  • Approximately 1 tablespoon of salt (I use Morton’s Kosher: if you’re using Diamond Kosher, which is fluffier, you’ll probably want more than a tablespoon).
  1. Cut and arrange your clean Swiss Chard stems so they fit comfortably in the half-pint jars. You’ll be pouring brine full of spices on top of the stems, so make sure the stems aren’t crammed in there too tightly–you want the spices to have room to drift past the stems.
  2. Bring the water, white wine vinegar, garlic, and spices to a boil in a small pan.
  3. Stir the salt into the water/vinegar/spice mixture and stir until dissolved.
  4. Carefully pour the brine over the chard stems in the jars.
  5. Seal jars and refrigerate for at least 48 hours before consuming.

But, for some reason Zack insists that pickles don’t count as a meal when consumed on their own, so I made some pasta with the rest of the chard.

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This is less a recipe than a template: toasted breadcrumbs layered over chard sauteed with garlic on top of a long, thin pasta (I used angel hair). Toasted breadcrumbs were a revelation. I used up the ends of two loaves of bread so stale that when I tried to cut it into chunks for the food processor, it shattered, sending shards of bread skittering across the cutting board. But after a few minutes in a skillet with butter, olive oil, and garlic, the extra stale breadcrumbs transformed into something really special. (If you would like more specific breadcrumb instructions, I used Smitten Kitchen’s.) I had a few chard stems leftover from pickling, so I diced those and set them to saute first, adding the leaves only a few minutes before draining the pasta. The only thing I would add next time would be some lemon zest for the bread crumbs and a squeeze of lemon for the chard.

It’s a simple meal, but to me it tasted a little like hope, a little like redemption, a little like the promise of better days.

 

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These City Lights