In the city of Nice, swiss chard has long been a kitchen staple and its beautiful, green, sometimes pink-stemmed leaves are known in France as blettes. Both here and over the border in Liguria, greens of all descriptions are used extensively in tarts, soups, tians and for colouring homemade pasta and gnocchi. On the tart front, the curiously sweet niçois dish Tourte de Blettes, which features apples, raisins and swiss chard baked in a pastry case with sugar, is a traditional and popular dessert, while the savoury and seasonal Torta Pasqualina (Easter Tart) of Liguria combines swiss chard with ricotta or the local prescinsêua cheese as a base for the tart’s filling.
This latter dish has inspired a few pasta sauce experiments recently and if, like me, you struggle to entice your children to ‘eat their greens’, this recipe could well be for you – mine lapped it up. I kid you not! And with some pecorino and a scattering of toasted pine nuts to finish, it’s sophisticated enough for the grown-ups too – think primi piatti and follow it up with a special piece of fish or meat for the second course. If you can’t get hold of swiss chard, spinach works just as well and the pasta of choice is the cylindrical sort – macaroni, rigatoni or penne would be ideal.
Pasta sauce: swiss chard and two cheeses
Serves four as a starter
200g swiss chard, stalks removed
175g fresh ricotta cheese
10 large basil leaves, finely chopped
50g pecorino romano, finely grated
1 clove garlic, crushed
A pinch of salt
200g macaroni, penne or rigatoni
A handful of toasted pinenuts
Place the swiss chard in a pan with a lid and pour in enough cold water to cover the bottom of the pan. Put the lid on and heat the greens on a medium heat, stirring from time to time. After five minutes or so, the greens will have wilted. Drain them in a sieve, and once cooled, squeeze out any remaining liquid.
Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions.
Combine the ricotta, basil leaves, garlic, salt and 40g of the pecorino in a bowl then stir in the cooked, drained swiss chard. Pour in the milk and mix again.
Once the pasta is cooked, drain it reserving a little of the cooking water. Put the pasta back into the saucepan and stir in swiss chard and cheese mixture. Add a little of the pasta water (perhaps two large spoonfuls) to give a consistency to the sauce that you are happy with. It should coat the pasta nicely but not be too thick.
Serve the pasta in bowls and top with the remaining pecorino and the toasted pinenuts. Watch in amazement as people lap up their greens!