Beets: roots, greens and stems
Bunches of beets are abundant at farmers’ markets and farm stands this time of year. But many don’t know that the humble beet offers three vegetables in one.
At a farm stand, I watched as a customer asked for the stems and greens to be cut off. Later, I met a friend at the farmers’ market who said her favorite way to use beet greens is in quiche, and she doesn’t bother to steam them first.
Roast the roots, or boil and mash them with bacon or apples as a side dish for one meal. Use fresh young greens in salads; cook older, tougher greens in frittata or quiche for another meal. Add stems to stir-fries for a third meal. Soups, stews and skillets can use all three — there are so many possibilities.
Beetroots are common fare throughout Europe. Before refrigeration, they were stored in root cellars for winter use.
African Americans are more familiar with the greens, and may not know how to use the roots. The tradition of eating greens goes back to enslavement days; the white slave holders often discarded the leaves, using the roots as their European ancestors did. Greens of all kinds were one of only a few vegetables that enslaved people were allowed to grow for themselves prior to the Civil War, so they became an integral part of African-American cuisine.
Recently, beets have risen to superfood fame. Their vibrant red color comes from the antioxidants anthocyanin and betalain, which may help prevent cancer and other degenerative diseases. They’re also nature’s multivitamin because they’re rich in so many important vitamins and minerals — potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamins A, B and C, and lots of fiber. Scientific studies have shown that beets are able to boost energy levels, lower blood pressure and reduce arthritic aches and pains. Beet roots have about 55 calories per cup; beet greens, just 17 calories.
Beets originated in North Africa and grew wild along Mediterranean seashores. People in southern Europe and northern Africa began cultivating beets for their green tops in prehistoric times. It was not until after the birth of Christ that the Romans began to use the roots as well. The Roman invasions of Europe spread this vegetable northward. Beets adapted well to cool climates, and in time both roots and leaves of the beet became a traditional food in central and northern Europe. The greens are an early summer delicacy, while roots can be stored in root cellars for food during long northern winters.
Use caution when handling beets, since betalain — the red dye in beets — can stain. You don’t want to get it on your clothes, and you may want to wear gloves when working with them.
Red beet soup (Borscht) is common fare in central Europe. It can be cool and refreshing on a hot summer day, or nice and hot, warming the bones when the weather is cold. It can be vegetarian or meat-based, a first course or the main meal, a clear consomm, or a hearty stew chuck full of different vegetables, meat and potatoes. Summer borscht uses stems and leaves, while in winter, the roots make bright red soups that may include cabbage or other winter greens.
Beetroots can be roasted, boiled, steamed, served hot or cold, pickled, made into soups, salads or even sandwiches. There is beet jam, beet cake, beet relish and even beet wine. Use slices of roasted beet or a little raw grated beet to dress a salad of tossed greens. They pair well with tart apples but will complement almost any ingredient you think to add. Beets are used in traditional dishes like borscht, New England flannel hash, or the Pennsylvania Dutch pickled beets and red eggs.
Beet greens deteriorate quickly, so eat them first; beetroots will keep longer in your fridge or root cellar. Store greens unwashed in the refrigerator, and wash in several changes of water prior to use to remove clinging sand. They cook down, so one pound of beet greens will yield less than two cups when cooked, or about 4-5 cups when shredded for a salad. They can be cooked like spinach, and are great in quiches and frittatas. Use young, tender greens in salads.
Stems can be cut up and sauted. They go well with strong seasonings like garlic, ham, or chilies and are great braised or stir-fried.
Red Flannel Hash
There are many versions of this traditional New England brunch or supper dish. Here is mine. I’ve included many options or variations – for whatever you like or have on hand.
1 Tablespoon olive oil or 1 strip bacon, cut up
1 onion, peeled and chopped fine
1 teaspoon salt
About 2 cups diced potatoes, cut into medium dice (3 to 4 small potatoes or one large, with skins, or peeled if you prefer)
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and cut into medium dice, optional
Stems from one or two bunches of beets, washed and cut in half-inch or one-inch lengths (about 2 cups)
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
4 garlic scapes or 2 cloves garlic, minced
For meat version: 1/4 to 1/2 pound breakfast sausage, ground beef, or cooked corned beef or other cooked chopped meat
For vegetarian version: 1/2 head red or green cabbage, core removed and thinly sliced (or equal amount other greens)
1 teaspoon each oregano and thyme, optional (to season vegetarian version)
2 to 3 large eggs
In a large skillet that has a lid, render bacon over medium heat (about 4 – 5 minutes) – o heat oil (1 minute).
When bacon is crisp, drain onto paper towels; reserve fat in pan. Add onion, sprinkle lightly with a little of the salt, cover, lower heat and cook about 10 minutes, stirring halfway through.
Add raw sausage or meat, if using; cook, stirring, until browned.
Add the potatoes and sweet potatoes (if using), sprinkle with a little more salt, add the minced garlic, turmeric, and black pepper, stir and cook, covered, another 5 to 10 minutes until tender.
If using cooked meat, add it now.
Add the beet stems and cabbage or greens, if using. Sprinkle with thyme and oregano. Cover and cook until tender, about 5 minutes.
You can let it cook longer, about a half-hour, if you like everything well-cooked. Stir once in a while to scrape any bits from the bottom, or add a little broth or apple juice.
At this point you can also turn off the heat and re-heat when you’re ready to eat.
When you’re ready to eat, break in the eggs around the circumference of the pan, cover, and poach right in the hash, three or four minutes for runny yolks or 7 minutes for hard yolks, as you like them. (You can also poach eggs separately, put on plates and cover with the hash – but this way uses less dishes).
Serves 2 to 4.
Option: for a simpler version that uses leftovers, add a tablespoon or two of butter to skillet, add 2 cups cooked, diced potatoes, 2 cups cooked, diced corned beef, 2 cups cooked, diced red beets or beet stems. When warm, stir in 1/4 cup heavy cream, poach your eggs, and serve.
Braised Beet Greens with Apples
Delicious served over pasta.
1 lb. fresh beet greens, including stems
1 Tablespoon cooking oil
1 small onion, peeled & diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
Salt & pepper
1 1/2 cups cooked beans, such as navy or pinto
1 cup diced cooked ham (optional)
2 apples, peeled, cored & diced
1/2 cup sharp Cheddar cheese or other sharp cheese
Wash greens. Separate greens from stems. Chop stems in 1/2″ pieces and chop greens coarsely. Set aside in colander.
Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add the stems, onion, and garlic and cook 5 – 7 minutes.
Add greens and chopped apples and cook 5 minutes longer. Season with salt & pepper. Stir in beans, ham, and cheese, and cook until cheese melts.
Serves 2 or 3.
Main Dish Beet and Potato Salad
1 Tablespoon mayonnaise
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup minced fresh chives or scallions, green parts only
2 Tablespoons minced fresh dill
1 cup diced, cooked beets
1 cup diced, cooked potatoes
1 cup cooked butter beans (or 1 can)
2 hardboiled eggs, diced
1/2 cup diced dill pickle
1 small carrot, grated (about 1/2 cup), optional
1 to 3 cups fresh, tender beet greens or spinach, optional
Blend mayonnaise, yogurt, salt, scallions and dill. Set aside.
In salad bowl, combine beets, potatoes, beans, eggs, pickle and carrot. Blend in the yogurt-mayo dressing. Stir in tender beet greens or spinach, if using.
Serves 2 or 3.
Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be found at www.yvonafast.com and reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook at Words Are My World.