I WAS a late convert to Swiss chard, but not because I disliked it.

Unlike olives, mushroom or liver, it was never a suspect item I avoided when growing up, only to discover that actually they are quite nice. My slowness was a reflection of the struggle to find the vegetable. Now that farmers' markets and farm shops are making less common items accessible, that's changed for the better.

The large heads have a distinctive appearance. Imagine a head of celery, only with flat, wide stems of a pale, creamy colour. To the top of each stem, add in your mind's eye wide, flappy leaves, rather like huge dark green spinach leaves. Rainbow chard is similar in appearance, but the stems are lit with striking shades of pretty pinky-purple.

But it is the flavour and juicy texture that makes me seek out this lovely vegetable as summer approaches. The spinach-like leaves and crunchy stem make it two vegetables in one. I trim off the leaves and blanch them in boiling water before folding through a cheesy sauce, laced with nutmeg. The succulent stems require longer simmering, perhaps in chicken stock. Combined in alternating layers, the two make a wonderful gratin. Shredded through a casserole, they lend a light refreshing crunch, or simmer in cream, grain mustard and cider for an indulgent side dish to pork chops

Gratin of Swiss chard

Recipes serve 4

2 big bundles Swiss chard, washed

Salt and pepper

A little lemon juice

60g butter

60g plain flour

90ml milk

120ml double cream

1 bay leaf

A sprig of fresh thyme, picked

A blade of nutmeg to grate

100g Gruyère, grated

1 clove garlic, peeled (optional)

1. Trim the ends off the chard stalks, then strip off the leaves. Roughly chop the leaves and cut the stalks into bite-sized 3cm lengths. Bring a big pot of salted water to the boil, drop in the stalks and simmer for 5-10 minutes (depending on thickness) to soften. Add the leaves, cook for a minute until wilted, then drain, refresh under cold water and drain again. Set aside to cool, then squeeze as much liquid from the leaves as you can. Season, add a squeeze of lemon juice and set aside.

2. In a saucepan, melt butter over a moderate heat, then stir in flour. Continue stirring for two minutes or so, until the mixture comes together, then stir in the milk a little at a time until smooth. Add cream a little at a time to give a thick creamy sauce. Add bay leaf and thyme, bring slowly up to the boil. Stirring all the while, simmer for five minutes, then remove from the heat. Season with salt, pepper and a grate or two of nutmeg, then stir in cheese. (To make the sauce even richer, whisk in an egg yolk at this stage.) Return to a low heat and cook, stirring, for just long enough to allow the cheese to melt so the sauce is smooth. Remove bay leaf.

3. Heat grill, or preheat oven to 190C. Butter a shallow oven dish. With the flat side of a knife, lightly crush the garlic (if using), and rub it over the insides of the dish. Lay in the chard stalks and leaves, distributing them evenly, then pour over the sauce. (Fresh breadcrumbs sprinkled over the top add a nice crunch to the finished dish.)

4. Grill for five minutes or so, until lightly browned, or bake for 20 minutes to half an hour, until golden and bubbling. Serve as a side dish or simply with some good crusty country bread and a salad.

Creamed Swiss chard, grain mustard and ginger

1 head of Swiss chard

300ml double cream

A shot of bourbon, optional

40g unsalted butter

1 piece of ginger about 2cm long

1 clove of garlic, peeled and finely chopped

2 rounded dstsp grain mustard

2 banana shallots, finely diced

1 tsp of thyme leaves, picked from their stalks


1. Cut the base of the Swiss chard and separate out the stems; cut the leaves away from the stems. Cut the stems into finger-sized batons, cut the leaves into pieces that are (very roughly) square and about 3cm across.

2. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil then cook the stems for 8-10 minutes. Add the chopped leaf and cook for one minute. Drain through a colander and refresh briefly under cold running water then squeeze out excess water and leave to stand in the colander.

3. Heat a large saucepan and add a dessertspoon of olive oil and the butter. Once it has melted and begun to foam up add the shallot, thyme and garlic and fry gently without colouring. Meanwhile, peel and finely dice the ginger then add to the softened shallot mixture, frying for a further 6-8 minutes. Add the mustard and stir in.

4. Add the bourbon, if using, and bring to the boil, letting it evaporate and reduce by half then add the Swiss chard and stir well to coat with the other ingredients. Add the cream and stir in, season lightly with sea salt flakes and give a few rubs of nutmeg too if you like (I do).

5. Simmer for up to 10 minutes, stirring regularly. At this pint, you must judge how much cooking is required: the goal is to cook the cream enough to reduce it slightly to a coating consistency, leaving a mixture which is moist but not runny or soupy. Taste for seasoning and adjust as desired. Serve with grilled pork chops and mashed potatoes for mopping up the juices.

Geoffrey Smeddle is the chef patron of The Peat Inn, By St Andrews, Fife, Ky15 5LH 0133 840206 www.thepeatinn.co.uk