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Leafy chard packs a nutritional punch

(ran NP, SPTP editions)

Chard, commonly known as Swiss chard, is perhaps the star among "leafy greens," that collection of nutritional powerhouses. Compared with kale, collards and mustard greens, chard is quick-cooking and mild-flavored. Its crinkly leaves are green, but the stalks vary from white, deep orange, vibrant yellow to brilliant red. (They pale slightly with cooking.) Chard contains large amounts of antioxidants, iron, vitamins A and C yet only 7 calories per cup of raw leaves.

HOW TO SELECT AND STORE: Though available in many stores year-round, chard abounds in summer and fall. Look for leaves that are bright green and crisp, not wilted, with no trace of yellowing. Stems should be crisp and firm, not flabby. Refrigerate chard, unwashed and wrapped loosely, first in paper towels, then in plastic wrap, for up to three days. Chard leaves cook down dramatically, so figure at least a pound of chard for four small servings.

HOW TO CLEAN: Trim and discard the ends of the stems. Plunge the leaves into a sink or bowl full of cold water and swirl vigorously, rinsing several times.

HOW TO PREPARE: So different are chard stems and leaves in texture and cooking time that cookbook author Jack Bishop (Vegetables Every Day, HarperCollins) says that they are practically two different vegetables.

While the leaves wilt quickly _ and, if not rescued from the heat in a timely fashion, turn to mush _ the stems take longer to soften. Separate the two parts by folding the leaf in half lengthwise along the stem and, using a sharp knife or a quick motion, cut or rip the stems from the leaves. Dice the stems and toss them in the skillet a few minutes before the leaves or reserve them for an entirely different dish, such as soup.

For the leaves alone, coarsely chop and, with some water still clinging to them, toss them into a skillet containing oil or butter over medium-high heat. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, just until wilted and all the liquid is exuded, about 5 minutes. Uncover and cook until almost all of the moisture has evaporated. The leaves may be served as a side dish or as a filling for omelets.

Or if you want your leaves crispy, try them roasted.

Roast Chard

1 large bunch chard, stems trimmed

About 1 tablespoon mild olive oil

Handful seedless red grapes

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Coarsely chop the leaves and toss on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with oil and toss to coat. The leaves should be in a single layer but will overlap slightly.

Roast, stirring once, until slightly crispy but not browned, 10 to 15 minutes. Watch the chard carefully. If you prefer a slightly chewy chard, take it out sooner rather than later.

If desired, spread the grapes on a separate baking sheet, toss with oil and roast for the same amount of time.

Season the chard with salt and pepper to taste. Add the grapes, if using, and toss to combine.

Serve immediately.

Serves two.