I love beets. Their earthy sweetness is so easy to incorporate into a meal and their color -- garish and unapologetic -- always pretties up a plate, whether you're using the red or golden variety, or even a combination of both. They are in full season right now, proudly displayed at Farmers' Market booths and in the produce departments of grocery stores. For those of us who participate in a CSR (Community Supported Agriculture) by purchasing a Farm Share, we're starting to see beets show up in our weekly boxes alongside the ubiquitous zucchinis and eggplants. And they're easy to prepare!
With the full force of summer's heat bearing down on us I am reluctant to turn on my stove unless it's absolutely necessary. Luckily for me, beets are easy to cook on the grill. The first order of business is to wash the beets and their tops, a time consuming task since they are gritty from their home in the ground. The leaves are especially tough to get clean; the constant spattering of raindrops and irrigation peppers them with sand. I usually begin by cutting the greens right off the bulbs and submerging them in a large bowl of cool water. While the greens are soaking, I give the gorgeous ruby and golden orbs a few scrubs with my hands and then wrap them in tin foil before putting them on the top shelf of my preheated grill. While they are cooking (depending on the size of your foil packet, this can take about 45 minutes) I turn my attention back to the greens.
Many people I know simply chop the leaves off the beets and toss them into the compost or garbage. What a waste of a good ingredient! Slightly peppery, they have many uses and should not be overlooked. However, have you ever bitten into a salad and felt your teeth shiver with revulsion because a prep cook didn't take the time to wash the leaves properly? It's awful and immediately ruins the dining experience. Washing the leaves properly is time consuming, but worth the effort. Soaking them in cool water releases the sand. By carefully lifting the leaves out of the water before dumping it and repeating the process, I gradually get rid of any grit that has adhered to them and I keep rinsing and repeating until not one grain of sand shows itself in the bottom of the wash bowl.
When the beets themselves are cooked, I rub the skin off with my hands and cut them into small cubes to make a Beet Salad. A light sprinkle of red wine vinegar, a couple of pinches of salt and a drizzle of olive oil make a dressing that doesn't overpower the beets. And now I take a few of the leaves and after stacking them, roll them up into a cigar shape before slicing them very thinly (this is called a chiffonade) across the 'cigar' and down its middle to shorten the strands. I toss this all together and the contrasts in flavor and color are always crowd pleasers.
Recently, while camping, several extra people showed up for dinner so I used the greens to bulk up some cauliflower. I sweated an onion and added in the cauliflower 'florets'. I then sprinkled in a little salt and some curry powder and stirred to combine before adding in the Chiffonaded Beet Greens. A little coconut milk moistened the mixture (you could use water if you're looking for a lighter dish) and I cooked it until the cauliflower was tender. A total improvisation, it was an instant success, and thanks in part to the beet greens, there was ample to go around. I might flavor it with something other than curry powder next time if I am going for a more 'Continental' flavoring, perhaps including garlic in with the onions, and using thyme for seasoning and a can of tomatoes for the moisture. Or maybe I'll just stir fry them with a dash of soy sauce at the end, but the fact remains that if you're going to buy beets you should remember that the tops have just as much to add to your kitchen as the joyful beets themselves.