Order a grilled fish at a restaurant in Dalmatia, and there’s one side dish that you’ll be offered almost every time: Swiss chard and potatoes. Along with the international pomfrit (French fries), boiled potatoes, grilled vegetables, and mixed salad, this is one of very few options you can expect, and the only really local one!
The dish is so simple that it doesn’t have a name in Dalmatia: it’s referred to as blitva s krumpirom, or just blitva (blitva means Swiss chard, and krumpir, potato). Yet it’s such a staple of the region that other Croatians call Dalmatians blitva. Dalmatians eat it as a side with fish, meat, or eggs, or even on its own. Those same other Croatians speak of blitva na dalmatinski (Dalmatian-style Swiss chard), and in neighboring Montenegro, the dish is often called Dalmatinsko varivo – “Dalmatian stew” (varivo is a vegetable stew). Why the obsession with Swiss chard? While this doesn’t fully explain the green’s inordinate local popularity, it’s believed to be native to countries bordering the Mediterranean, from the Iberian Peninsula to the Middle East to North Africa.
Swiss chard with potato is pretty much just this: boiled potatoes, boiled Swiss chard, maybe mixed with some sautéed onion and garlic, and drizzled with olive oil. The spuds are mashed more or less coarsely, and the greens are reduced to a mush. Recipes often call for twice as much Swiss chard as potatoes by weight – after all, if you just want boiled potatoes, you can order (or make) boiled potatoes.
Because Croatia counts many high-end restaurants that serve creative menus that go beyond grilled fish and blitva, I ended up eating the dish more frequently in Montenegro, where traditional cuisine often remains the only choice. Most places stick to the classic recipe, though some do try to innovate a bit. I’m pretty sure that sometimes the Swiss chard and potatoes I’ve tried were mixed with spinach, too, which brings some nuance to the chard’s rather distinctive flavor. Restaurant Galion, in Kotor, adds a touch of variety by mixing in carrots sautéed in butter.
For my part, I don’t tend to like boiled vegetables. Boiling is generally the laziest and worst way of cooking vegetables, producing a watery mess that traumatizes generation upon generation of children until eventually they either submit sheepishly or eat fried potatoes at every meal. Call boiled vegetables healthy if you like; call them vile. (As a scientific aside, boiling actually depletes vegetables of many of their nutrients). In any case, you’re not reading this blog to learn how to boil vegetables. So my Swiss chard and potatoes recipe has little to do with the original:
- Since I’m not a blitva, I add spinach to the Swiss chard, just like some of the restaurants where I’ve tried the dish.
- I cook the spinach and Swiss chard like creamed spinach (using a recipe adapted from Serious Eats). I don’t understand why anyone would choose boiled greens over a creamed version. Ever.
- Because my creamed spinach and chard mix is quite rich, I use a lot more potatoes than the traditional 1:2 ratio.
- And here’s one more idea for people who like to experiment, although I haven’t used it in my recipe: try adding some ground turmeric – a great ingredient pairing with spinach and potato.
The result truly is a vegetable side to look forward to. Sure, it’s a bit more work, but it’s worth the effort. The creamed spinach and chard can be made a day ahead.
Creamed spinach and Swiss chard
Yields 4 servings
35 g butter
35 g peeled Swiss chard ribs, brunoise
35 g peeled shallots, brunoise
6 g peeled garlic, minced
200 g picked spinach, washed and very coarsely chopped
90 g Swiss chard leaves without ribs, washed and very coarsely chopped
1 pinch baking soda
6 g corn starch
110 g heavy cream
70 g chicken stock
black pepper, ground
20 g crème fraîche
- Melt the butter in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the Swiss chard ribs, shallots, and garlic, then cook until softened, stirring regularly.
- Add the spinach and Swiss chard leaves in a couple of batches, stirring with a spatula and allowing them to wilt before adding the next batch.
- Season with salt, add the baking soda and corn starch, and cook for another minute, stirring constantly. Slowly stir in the heavy cream and chicken stock. Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting. Cook for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally, until the spinach and chard are completely softened and the sauce has significantly thickened – the mixture should have a texture close to a purée, just like creamed spinach.
- Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg, and stir in the crème fraîche. Remove from the heat and reserve.
Dalmatian Swiss chard and potatoes
Yields 4 servings
330 g peeled Yukon Gold potatoes
25 g extra virgin olive oil
creamed spinach and Swiss chard
black pepper, ground
- Cook the potatoes in salted boiling water for about 20 minutes, until tender.
- Drain the potatoes, transfer to a bowl, then add the olive oil and mash with a fork. Mix in the creamed spinach and Swiss chard, and rectify the salt and pepper seasoning.
- Serve with grilled, roasted, or pan-fried fish of your choice!