Greens and pasta
When I was growing up, greens came to our table in one of two forms: lettuce (generally iceberg), raw in salads, and – on rare occasions, what my Southern-bred mother called “a mess o’ greens,” boiled to within an inch of their lives with a chunk of ham hock. The result was salty, greasy and kind of slimy, to my child’s palate.
It may not surprise you to learn that I was not a big fan of greens.
Times change. And to be fair to my mother, who was a terrific cook, her options were often limited to what was available in a military base commisary, which in the late 1950s and early ’60s (yes, I’m that old) did not offer much by way of fresh produce.
Each spring I am reminded how lucky I am to live in a rich agricultural valley at a time when small-scale farming-for-the-market is exploding, and with it the seasonal availability of all kinds of produce, including the leafy greens.
Right now it’s chard, with its vivid, extravegant, crumpled leaves and crunchy rainbow-hued stems. When I encounter the first chard of the season, I have to restrain myself from buying armfuls of the stuff – I’m generally cooking for one, after all, and while chard has enough substance, properly prepared, to make for very good leftovers, there’s no sense wasting it.
Still, while it’s here, I favor chard as a main dish, not a side. And I love this preparation, which I was first served in a Midwestern restaurant, because it’s like a really *good* version of mom’s mess o’ greens, with the salty tang of good pork but crunchy and chewy and just tasty as heck.
I’ve reconstructed the recipe from memory, and these amounts make two hearty main-dish servings or four as a side dish, perhaps with some nice broiled fish or chicken.
Pasta with Chard and Bacon
- Pasta of your choice (I remember having this with linguine; I made it tonight with rotini. Use whatever substantial pasta you like)
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- 4-6 slides of thick-cut bacon, cut in half-inch pieces*
- 1/2 cup thinly sliced shallots, onions or leeks, as you prefer*
- 1 large bunch chard, rinsed, dried and chopped. If it’s young chard, go ahead and chop up the stems, too; for older chard, save the tough stems for making soup.*
- 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- Shaved Parmesan
- Salt and coarsely ground pepper to taste
* Locally sourced ingredients.
Cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup or so of the cooking water. Toss with a drizzle of olive oil to keep it from sticking together and cover to keep warm.
While the pasta cooks, place the bacon pieces in a large , thick-bottomed skillet or pot over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally with a slotted spoon, until just crisp, about 10 minutes. Remove and drain on paper towels or a brown paper bag.
Drain off all but a tablespoon of the bacon fat and return the pan to the stove; increase heat to medium-high and stir in the shallots, cooking until softened. Add the chard, and pour the pasta liquid over it. Stir and toss until the chard begins to wilt, then drizzle with balsamic vinegar and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 5 minutes.
Add the pasta to the cooked chard and toss well; transfer to plates, add salt and pepper and sprinkle with bacon. Finish with a little shaved parmesan. Serve hot. Enjoy.
Feel free to experiment with proportions; you might like more vinegar, and if the bacon’s salty, you can probably skip salting the dish.