When I saw beautiful Swiss chard in the market the other week, I thought I’d blanch the leaves, use the stalks and some meat to make a filling, then braise a batch of stuffed chard rollups for dinner. That was a worthy plan (chard leaves are a great alternative to cabbage for dishes of this kind), but it was excessively ambitious for a lazy man on a hot, lazy day.
So I took advantage of a slab of pork belly I’d cooked a few days earlier and put together a simplified version that had a lot of the virtues of my initial idea without most of the work. You may well have a slab of pre-cooked pork belly in your refrigerator, but then again you may not. So as I tell you what I did, I’ll offer an alternative or two along the way.
I separated the chard leaves from the stalks; the stalks I kept for another dish (pasta perhaps or a little gratin as a side dish). After carefully washing them, I blanched the leaves in boiling salted water for less than 30 seconds — just until they became limp — and plunged them into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. I transferred them to a strainer to drain. (They didn’t need to be squeezed dry, and they’re a little fragile for such rough treatment anyway.)
Next, I microwaved a 12-ounce russet potato, wrapped in a damp paper towel, until just cooked; I could have steamed or boiled it, of course, and had it been later in the season, I’d have used an equivalent weight of waxier local potatoes such as German Butterballs. I left it to cool.
I cut six 1/4-inch slices from my pre-cooked pork belly. If I hadn’t had any, I’d have used, say, eight or nine slices of thick-cut bacon or, even better, I’d have simmered a chunk of slab bacon in plain water for 40 minutes and cut that into thick slices. I laid the slices into a 12-inch skillet and set it over low heat (covered to protect the neighborhood from splatters). Gradually, a lot of the fat rendered out, and the meat became lightly browned though not crisp. After turning the meat and cooking it on the other side for a while, still over low heat, I spooned most of the fat out of the pan and saved it for future reference.
I now added a few fresh sage leaves, slivered, and two big, juicy spring onions and a head of spring garlic, sliced, including the nicer parts of the greens; a medium regular onion and a small clove of regular garlic would have been fine, too. These cooked with the pork (or bacon), still under the lid, until softened. If I had wanted to avoid meat altogether, I’d have cooked the onions (more of them, perhaps) in butter or olive oil.
After heating the oven to 360 degrees, I assembled the dish — I now thought of it as a crustless pie — in an olive-oiled 8-inch skillet, though a pie plate or cake pan would have been fine, too. I lined the pan with some chard leaves, using smaller ones to patch the gaps and making sure that the larger ones hung over the edge of the pan. I put in a layer of potato slices, sprinkled with salt, pepper and a little oil; then a layer of meat and onions (I also put in some crunchy sourdough croutons, but these are entirely optional as they lose their crunch but do provide a certain tasty liaison); then more chard leaves and another layer of potatoes and meat/onions.
For a meatless version, you might consider using sliced hard — but not too hard — cooked eggs in place of the pork. Or you could use the chard stems, boiled until just tender.
Finally, I covered the top with chard leaves, compressed the whole affair with my palms and folded in the overhanging leaves to make a neat disc. I deglazed the pork-onion skillet with white wine, then with stock (water would do), and poured the resulting 1/2 cup of liquid over the top of the pie.
Covered with aluminum foil, the pan stayed in the oven for 35 minutes, by which time it was hot throughout and ready to be turned out onto a plate. It was also delicious throughout: The potatoes took on flavors from all the other ingredients, and the earthiness of the chard pervaded the pie. It was nice and moist, too, especially when I drizzled it with some of the juices that had gathered in the pan.
I’ll try this with other leaves as the season progresses — sturdy kales, tenderer cabbage — and with other fillings, such as mushrooms, as well as with other meats: I am thinking of shredded leftover braised lamb or pork shoulder.