Another green leafy vegetable that we are growing in the garden this year is Swiss chard. That's called silverbeet in Australia, I understand, and maybe elsewhere. Chard is closely related to beets, and both are more closely related to spinach than to cabbage. Chard isn't Swiss at all, according to what I've read, but it has been part of the Mediterranean diet at least since Roman times.
Chard is very confusing, linguistically, in French. A lot of people call it bettes, and a lot of others call it blettes (with an L). Both terms are in the plural, and neither one seems to be especially regional. I wonder if linguistically the word bettes is too close to the word bêtes, which as a noun means "beasts." Phonetically, j'ai mangé des bettes — chard — and j'ai mangé des bêtes — beasts or animals — sound exactly the same, so such a sentence is ambiguous in the spoken form.
To get around the ambiguity, people say blettes rather than bettes, or they use a longer form of the second term: bettes-cardes or bettes à cardes. Or just cardes. Or another term entirely, la poirée à carde(s). It's enough to make your head spin.
In my opinion, it's better to say blettes (with the L) rather than bettes (without the L), because everyone understands what you are talking about, even though some people will take the opportunity to correct you. They are the ones who are sure that either bettes or blettes is absolutely the correct term to use, and the other is an error in French.
Over the centuries, beets have been cultivated and selected for their bulbous roots, while chard has been cultivated for its wide, thick leaf ribs — les côtes, which is the same word used for humans' and animals' ribs. Why the ribs? Because that's the part people eat. Sometimes they actually throw out the green leafy part of the leaf. Ginette Mathiot, in her Je sais cuisiner home cookery book — the one I have is ©1970 — says to trim away the green part of the leaves from the white ribs — as she says, « Enlever les feuilles vertes. » — and cook just the ribs, serving them with white, cheese, or cream sauce.
Our friend G., 81, who lives on the other side of the village, brought us a big bagful of blettes two or three years ago. I asked her how she cooked them. She said she just cooked everything together. No separating the white from the green parts for her. She gave some to our other neighbor, M., who cooked them one day when she invited us all over for lunch. She cooked the whole blette leaves too, white and green together.
That's what I usually do, but another way to prepare the blettes is to cut the green parts off the white ribs and then cook both, separately. The green parts then are more like spinach, but they have a slightly different, milder flavor. The white parts have the same earthy flavor, but you use them differently. Physically, they slightly resemble celery stalks, and they have strings like celery stalks that it is best to remove before cooking them.
A year or two ago, I got a comment or an e-mail from somebody from England who was traveling around in the South of France. They don't seem to sell whole chard leaves in the markets down here, the person said. All they were selling was the wide white ribs, with the green parts cut off. That's the way it's done in France, often, when it comes to blettes.
La Cuisinière provençale, by J.-B. Reboul, gives the classic recipe for cooking blettes or, more precisely, côtes de blettes. It's a gratin. The book has existed in many editions since 1897, apparently. Here's the recipe (my translation): After trimming and washing the chard ribs, cook them in a large quantity of lightly salted water. Drain them and arrange them in a baking dish. Sprinkle on grated cheese and pour over all some béchamel sauce to which you've added two or three raw egg yolks. Sprinkle on some more grated cheese and cook the dish slowly in the oven.
That's kind of what I was going to do yesterday with some côtes de blettes that I took out of the freezer. But then I had the idea of making a dish of lasagne with them instead. Just make layers in a baking dish: (1) tomato sauce, lasagne noodles, cooked chard ribs, grated cheese, béchamel sauce; (2) more lasagne noodles, more chard ribs, more grated cheese, more béchamel; (3) more lasagne noodles and finally more tomato sauce. Optionally, more cheese on top. And optionally, a slice or two of sandwich-style ham (jambon de Paris or Danish ham) or other meat added at strategic points among the layers for flavor, just to use up some leftover ham slices.
In Les Recettes d'une grand'mère (1988), Renée de Grossouvre has this to say about les bettes-cardes ou côtes de bettes: « Elles sont (à mon avis) un légume bien secondaire et sans goût. C'est la sauce qui les fait passer. » — "Chard is a tasteless, second-class vegetable. It's the sauce that makes them palatable." With the melted cheese, tomato sauce, and béchamel in lasagne, they are pretty good, giving a flavor that's a little like the taste of spinach. And you've eaten your vegetables, so you can feel good about it.