For the longest time, I disliked beets. It was a bunch of freshly pulled spring beets from a friend’s garden that turned me from a beet hater to a beet lover, and now I grow them every year. Since we don’t have a root cellar, I roast or cook the beets right after harvest and freeze them. The beet leaves, if they are still young and tender, go into the freezer as well.
Whenever I grab the sledgehammer to drive a bamboo stick into the ground in order to secure something in the garden, like I did this morning, I must think of the time when I paid my attempt to protect the tomatoes from predators with a broken toe.
It was a few years ago in August. The tomatoes were heavy with fruit and just starting to ripen. One morning, I found the first fully red tomato on the ground, a big bite taken out of it. The next morning, the same thing. And the day after that, two tomatoes.
As my husband and I were having coffee that morning, I must have given him the “if-you-want-tomato-sauce-this year-you-better-do-something” look before heading out the door. When I pulled up the driveway at midday, I found him in the garden, sweating in the hot sun, putting the finishing touches on a 2-foot wall he had built around the entire tomato patch, using every single piece of plywood and scrap wood he could find in the shed. I gave him a big hug and called him my tomato hero.
The next day I found… another chewed tomato. My husband had gone with our son to his baseball game so they could not hear me scream and curse. By afternoon, and after some frantic research, I finally had a plan. Since the damage most likely occurred at night, I was going to nail a blinking bike light to the inside of the wall, which would deter whatever munched on the tomatoes.
I hastily kicked off my garden shoes at the door and rushed into the garage in socks to fetch the bike light, a nail and a hammer. Not waiting for the light over the workbench to turn on completely, I reached into the shelf for the hammer… and pulled out the sledgehammer sitting on top, which crashed on my foot.
When my husband and son came back a couple of hours later, they found me in the kitchen, my foot in a bucket with ice, wailing. I prefer not to repeat their comments, and neither the comments and looks I got in the following weeks when all I could wear was sandals and someone saw my bruised foot and I had to tell my story.
After I was somewhat able to move around again, I hobbled down to the garden and angrily tossed the bike light into the tomato patch. I left it switched on even during the day and gave a damn about the battery.
The chewing stopped. We had a bountiful tomato harvest. A few more years of critter warfare followed before we turned the main garden into a real fortress that only humans with two free hands to lift the gate, winged insects, and an occasional chipmunk can access. Now I grow everything that has a remote chance of being eaten (including tomatoes) in that fenced-in area, and all the perennial plants that critters usually leave alone (raspberries, blackberries, red and black currants, gooseberries and rhubarb) are outside. This year I boldly snuck a watermelon into the outside garden too. So far so good but maybe it has just not been discovered yet.
After I drove the bamboo stick in the ground this morning, I pulled the last spring beets – beautiful striped Chioggia and Crosby’s Egyptian. It is amazing how happy an arm full of beets can make me. This would have been unthinkable in the days of bunny warfare – the tender beet leaves were one of the first things to be chewed down to the ground by rabbits.
When an old friend of mine from Germany recently visited, he raved about the beet dumplings he and his family had on a vacation in Tyrol and started to prepare at home. Of course I wanted the recipe!
First I thought the dumplings were more of a side dish, and I should wait to serve them with some type of roast in the fall or winter. But then I realized they make a very satisfying vegetarian main course, similar to pasta.
The original recipe uses chopped parsley but I thought chives would give the dumplings more flavor. For the sauce, I concocted a cream sauce with wine and shallots.
I am thrilled with this discovery in pink and cannot wait to make the dumplings again when the fall crop of beets comes in.
Beet Dumplings with Shallot Cream Sauce
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 small onion, finely chopped
3½ ounces cooked or steamed beets
1¾ ounces Gorgonzola
4½ ounces dried crustless white bread
3 tablespoons flour, more as needed
2 tablespoons snipped fresh chives
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter
3 shallot lobes, finely chopped
¼ cup dry white wine
¾ cup heavy cream
Freshly ground black pepper
1. For the dumplings, melt the butter in a small skillet and cook the onion until translucent and soft, stirring often. Set aside to cool.
2. Process the beets with the eggs and the Gorgonzola in the food processor or blender until smooth.
3. Cut the bread in small cubes and place them in a large bowl. Pour the beet mix over them. Add the cooled onion and mix everything until well combined. Add 3 tablespoons flour and mix well. Add the chives and salt to taste. Cover and let stand for 15 to 30 minutes.
4. Bring salted water to a boil in a large pot. Reduce the heat to a mere simmer. Place a thumbnail-size test dumpling in the simmering water. If it holds, the consistency is fine; if it falls apart, add more flour to the mix, one tablespoon at a time.
5. With wet hands shape dumplings of about 1.5 inches in diameter and place them in the simmering water. Do not overcrowd the pot; the dumplings should not touch each other. Simmer until the dumplings float on the surface, about 10 to 15 minutes. When they are done, remove them with a slotted spoon to a warmed serving bowl. Cover with a lid to keep them warm.
6. While the dumplings are simmering, prepare the sauce. Melt the butter in a small saucepan. Add the shallots and cook until soft and translucent, stirring often. Add the wine and increase the heat. Cook until the wine has evaporated almost entirely.
7. Add the cream and reduce the heat. Simmer uncovered until the sauce has thickened, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Pour the sauce over the dumplings and serve.
Makes 4 servings
No matter how hard I try to stay clean, I always get dirty in the garden. I mean really dirty, to the point where need to take off my gardening clothes in the garage. The worst are my knees. Even after thorough scrubbing in the shower, rubbing them with alcohol or hydrogen peroxide, my knees still look dirty. This is a mystery to me because I always wear trousers in the garden – hand-me-downs from my mother who is trying to rid her house of decades of accumulated clothing, including old jeans of mine when I was in my twenties (surprisingly, they still fit me, gardening must indeed do something for the waistline).
My best guess is that my knees are not actually dirty but it’s more pressure points from being on my knees a lot, just like our dog has calluses on his elbows from frequent floor contact.
How could I possibly not be on my knees? Seeding minuscule seeds, thinning out tiny seedlings, and harvesting, especially digging out root vegetables, is practically impossible without crouching on the ground, unless you do raised-bed gardening. Today I dug out some lonely beets that I had overlooked all summer, and seeded another fall crop. The arugula needed thinning so I took some for this salad tonight. Of course, I did all of this… on my knees.
When the time comes where I cannot be on my knees any more, I shall move to raised beds. Until then, I will just have to accept dirty knees as the signs of a true gardener.
Beet Salad with Arugula and Feta
1.5 pounds beets
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
1 small bunch baby arugula
5 ounces crumbled feta
3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
2. Wash the beets and put them unpeeled in a Dutch oven or cast-iron casserole with a tight-fitting lid. Pour in about ¼ inch water. Cook the beets in the preheated oven for about 40 minutes, depending on size, until they are easily pierced with a knife. If the beets are different in size, check them individually and take them out as they become tender.
3. Slip the skins off the beets and cut into 1-inch cubes. Set aside to cool.
4. Whisk the oil with the vinegar, salt and pepper.
5. Wash and dry the arugula and tear into bite-size pieces.
6. In a large bowl, mix the cooled beets with the arugula, feta, mint and dressing. Serve as soon as possible, as the arugula wilts quickly.
Makes 4-6 servings