I like to read cookbooks. If the truth be known, I enjoy reading cookbooks more than I enjoy cooking. I check them out of the library and read them. Sometimes, I like them so much that, if I can afford them, I buy them. Or, I might copy out a few recipes. Sometimes, I just take them back to the library. Recently, I checked out a book that I cannot afford to buy, but it is so unique that I had to take a few photographs before returning it. (Click on an image to enlarge.)
The book is Polpo: A Venetian Cookbook (Of Sorts) by Russell Norman. It is full of beautiful photographs and intriguing recipes, but the thing that got my attention is the exposed spine binding of this book. The binding is attractive and a book bound in this way will lie perfectly flat when open, making it ideal for sketchbooks or cookbooks. On the other hand, such a binding is more often seen in artists’ books which are intended as works of art in themselves and are produced in small editions. Exposed spine bindings are not often seen in commercially produced books, perhaps because the binding is more expensive to produce or is more likely to wear out with heavy use.
A cookbook that I took out of the library and went on to buy is Vegetables by James Peterson. This is one of those cookbooks that makes me feel that, if absolutely necessary, I could get by with this cookbook alone. Sort of a desert island book, not that anyone would need a cookbook on a desert island. Having just seen and purchased a gorgeous bunch of chard, I was looking through Vegetables, wondering if there might be a way of cooking chard other than my usual quick sauté in olive oil with garlic. The book is ordered alphabetically by the common names of vegetables so, as usual, I had to look for “Swiss chard” rather than simply “chard”. This is interesting in itself, as Wikipedia tells us that the “word ‘Swiss’ was used to distinguish chard from French spinach varieties by 19th century seed catalog publishers.” It does seem to me that calling something “chard” might be enough to distinguish it from something called “spinach” but what do I know?
This lovely leafy green is often ignored by American cooks who prefer the gentler flavor of spinach. Though Swiss chard can be cooked in the same way as spinach, Swiss chard has a meatier texture and a more forthright, earthy flavor. It comes in red, yellow, and green with the red Swiss chard (sometimes called rhubarb chard) being the stronger tasting of the three. Red Swiss chard–which actually has green leaves and red stems–tastes like beets, its close relative.
–James Peterson, “Swiss Chard”, Vegetables
Red Swiss chard is also called “ruby chard” and plants which are a mixture of red chard, yellow chard and Swiss chard are sometimes called “rainbow chard”.
Peterson’s reference to beets as a close relative of chard led me to another fascinating discovery. The Latin name for beets is Beta vulgaris. The Latin name for chard is–Beta vulgaris(!?) Does this mean that they’re the same plant? Once again, I turned to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beet). There, I found a “taxonomy of the various wild and cultivated races of beets,” taken from J. P. W. Letschert by way of Mansfeld’s Encyclopedia of Agricultural and Horticultural Crops.
Beta vulgaris: all cultivated varieties of the beet, which are grown for their taproots, leaves, or swollen midribs.
- B. v. ssp. vulgaris convar. cicla: leaf beets, popular before the introduction of spinach;
- B. v. ssp. v. convar. cicla. var. cicla: spinach beet, cultivated for its leaves;
- B. v. ssp. v. convar. cicla. var flaviscens: chard;
- B. v. ssp. vulgaris convar. vulgaris: tuberous beets, grown for their thickened tubers rather than their leaves;
- B. v. ssp. v. convar. vulgaris var. crassa: mangelwurzel, developed for use as a fodder crop.
- B. v. ssp. v. convar. vulgaris var. altissima: sugar beet;
- B. v. ssp. v. convar. vulgaris var. vulgaris (beetroot or garden beet, the red root vegetable that is usually thought of as ‘beet’.
In the end, I learned a lot about beets (and mangelwurzel, which I’d always wondered about), though by no means all there is to know about beets, which apparently have a long and complicated history. However, I didn’t find a better recipe for chard.