Every now and again in life, you meet someone who just cracks open your heart and inspires you from the inside out. Award-winning urban gardener, farmer, community activist, and cook extraordinaire Karen Washington is one of these people. I feel so lucky that I got to spend a morning with her in the Garden of Happiness, the community garden she co-founded 30 years ago in her neighborhood in the Bronx after she happened to move into a house that was sitting directly across the street from an abandoned lot. Over the years, she helped transform that derelict lot from a concrete slab littered with garbage, into a lush, green, vibrant, and welcoming community space, home now to over 20 family garden plots, several fruits trees, and a couple of greenhouses. And yes, you really do feel an instant sense of peace and happiness there. It’s an oasis of calm in the city.
The morning I visited, one family was planting flowers and roasting fragrant smoky ears of corn on a grill, the chickens were clucking happily away in their coop, and Karen and others were busy harvesting greens for the local farmer’s market which takes place each week just up the road from the garden. As Karen explains in the video, the Garden of Happiness is a community space where people can come together and exchange foods, recipes, and ideas across the many different cultures represented there. For instance, in the community garden, Karen was introduced to Callaloo (an amaranth green popular in the Caribbean that sells out in minutes at their local farmer’s market), Papalo and Pipicha (herbs frequently used in South American dishes), and many other crops that can be otherwise hard to find in the average grocery store but that are the pillars of various cultural cuisines. Over the years, she has also learned to speak Spanish fluently since many of the garden’s families are of Hispanic background.
Karen is truly a force to be reckoned with and her biggest inspiration for doing the work she does was seeing the lack of access to healthy food in low-income neighborhoods, the rise in diet-related diseases, and our collective lack of connection to history and culture as we become more and more distanced from the source of our food.
As soon as we got back from delivering fresh produce to her local farmer’s market, Karen got right to work harvesting the most gigantic, lush, squeaky green leaves of swiss chard I’ve ever seen and with that armful of just-picked chard, proceeded to make the recipe we’re sharing here today. And what a recipe it is!
I myself struggle with a garden full of swiss chard that often gets woefully ignored because I simply run out of ideas for what to make with it. Well, since Karen showed me this recipe, I’ve made it almost every other day. Yup. It’s that good. It’s also, simple, quick, easy, filling, and healthy. It checks off all the boxes of what makes a recipe worth returning to again and again. So without further ado, here is Karen’s wonderful recipe for Swiss Chard and White Beans. And if you’d like to read more about Karen’s work, there is this NY Times article, and this brilliant interview on Food Tank. Enjoy!
Please visit the PBS Food’s Kitchen Vignettes to see a beautiful video of Aube Giroux’s time with Karen in the garden and in the kitchen. It will make your day.
- 2 medium onions, chopped (Karen recommend red onions for taste and color)
- 4 Tbsp olive oil
- 6 cloves of garlic, minced
- 2 large bunches of swiss chard (rinsed, bottom stems removed, and loosely chopped)
- 1 tsp smoked paprika or chipotle
- A pinch of dry oregano, thyme, and sage
- 1 tsp salt (more or less to suit your taste)
- 2 tsp tamari sauce (optional)
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
- About 1/2 cup of vegetable stock or water
- About 1 1/2 cups of cooked white beans
- 1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
- In a heavy-bottomed pot or pan on medium heat, cook the chopped onions in the olive oil until softened and fragrant. Add the garlic, herbs, paprika, cayenne (if using), and salt. Cook for another two minutes or so. Add the tamari sauce and water, and then the chopped chard, a giant handful at a time, stirring in between to coat each addition of chard with the onion mixture. It will seem like you are adding a lot of chard but it will shrink right down as it cooks.
- Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and cook the swiss chard mixture until the chard leaves are fully tender, around 10 to 15 minutes. Add the white beans and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat and sprinkle on the grated parmesan. Serve on its own, or with a slice of good crusty bread or a bowl of your favorite cooked whole grain.