Beets and quiche don’t rhyme – or do they?

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.

My favorite beet recipes that I make often are Martha Rose Shulman’s Mushroom and Beet Borscht from The New York Times, Beet Green Risotto – and this Beet Quiche. Continue reading

Garden foes, garden woes, and a broken toe

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.

I made Amanda Hesser’s fabulous Gingered Beet Pickles but used my own Elderflower Vinegar instead of white vinegar. Any other fruity vinegar will do as a substitute.

Discovery in pink

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

Dumplings:

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 small onion, finely chopped

3½ ounces cooked or steamed beets

2 eggs

1¾ ounces Gorgonzola

4½ ounces dried crustless white bread

3 tablespoons flour, more as needed

2 tablespoons snipped fresh chives

1 teaspoon salt

Sauce:

1 tablespoon butter

3 shallot lobes, finely chopped

¼ cup dry white wine

¾ cup heavy cream

Salt

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

The eternally dirty knees of a gardener

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

Salt

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

Unfinished business

The beets in my garden are knee-high. But before I could even think of what I would make with them, I had to use up the frozen beet greens from last fall. Given the effort that I put into growing, harvesting, trimming, washing, drying, chopping and freezing them, there was absolutely no question, these had to go first! Besides, being wasteful while people who don’t have a garden complain that beet greens are not always available would made me feel really guilty.

I have made Risotto with Beet Greens so frequently these past months that I needed to give that one a break. So I tried different side dishes. Marissa Grace’s Pink Greens on Food52 were my husband’s favorite. I liked them but I would also put these Beet Greens with Sesame on the top of my list. Not covering them and adding lime juice juice helped them maintain their green color.

There will be so many new fresh beet greens coming my way that I will certainly make both dishes again.

Beet Greens with Sesame

1 tablespoon raw sesame seeds

2 teaspoons olive oil

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger

2 pounds trimmed beet greens, coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon lime juice

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1. Lightly toast the sesame seeds in a non-greased pan. Set aside.

2. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds to 1 minute until soft. Add the beet greens and the ginger and cook until wilted, stirring often. Do not cover.

3. When the beet greens have collapsed, add the lime juice. Season with salt and pepper. Pour off some of the pink liquid and transfer greens to a serving bowl. Drizzle with sesame oil and sprinkle with the toasted sesame seeds. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Makes 4 servings

If life gives you beet greens…

Risotto with beet greens

Growing beets has always been difficult for me in my garden. Before I put up a Berlin Wall-like fence, the tender greens were chewed to the ground by rabbits as soon as they emerged. But even now, and despite painstaking soil sifting and amendment with sand, most of the beets in the rocky Pennsylvania soil are small, woodsy and gnarly. Their greens, however, is a totally different story! It is as if the plants put all their energy into the lush, shiny, large foliage. So every year I end up with several bags of frozen beet greens.

Before I became a gardener, I did not even know that beet greens are edible. That’s no surprise, because unless you buy the beets super-fresh from a farmers market, they reach the store leafless. And that’s a shame, because the leaves have more nutritional value than beet roots.

I have tried different recipes with beet greens but I always return to the same two recipes: Trouchia, a French vegetable omelet, and this risotto. The recipe is adapted from Amanda Hesser’s terrific book The Cook and the Gardener. But since I have such an abundance of beet greens, I maximized their amount and left out the chard used in the original recipe.

Frozen beet greens are easy to break into small bits while still in the bag so no chopping needed.

Risotto with Beet Greens

8-10 ounces cleaned and trimmed beet greens, fresh or frozen

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

4 cups low-fat chicken broth

1 shallot, finely chopped

1 bay leaf

1 cup Arborio rice

1/3 cup dry white wine

1 tablespoon butter

½ cup freshly grated Parmesan

Salt

Freshly ground white pepper

1. Chop the beet greens if using fresh, or break frozen leaves into small pieces.

2. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet and add the garlic. Cook for 2 minutes until soft. Don’t let the garlic brown.

3. Stir und cook until leaves are wilted. Remove from the heat and set aside.

4. Heat the chicken broth in a saucepan.

5. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a medium-size pot with a heavy bottom. Add the shallot and cook 2 minutes until translucent.

6. Add the bay leaf and the rice and stir to coat evenly. Cook over medium heat until the rice releases a nutty smell and looks glassy.

7. Add the wine and ¼ cup hot broth. Cook while stirring constantly until all the liquid has been absorbed.

8. Continue adding chicken broth in ½ cup increments and stirring constantly, only adding more broth when the previous addition has been absorbed, until all the broth has been used and the rice is tender but not mushy, about 20 to 25 minutes.

9. Add the beet greens and stir until reheated. Then stir in the Parmesan and butter and season with salt and pepper. Cover with a lid and let stand for 1 to 2 minutes before serving.

Makes 2 servings as a main course, or 4 servings as side dish

Beets? Sweet!

I was a beet-avoider – until I found the best way to prepare them: roasted in the oven. What a difference in flavor and texture from the boiled, rubbery slices in jars and cans! Now I am growing beets in the garden, and for the first time I have a real harvest (thanks to Berlin Wall No. 2).

Tonight we’ll have a beet salad that I’ve made a few times already this year. But I will add a new, also homemade ingredient: raspberry vinegar. I found the vinegar recipe in the superb recently published River Cottage Preserves Handbook by Pam Corbin (though I used less sugar than the recipe calls for).

Roasted Beet Salad with Walnuts and Goat Cheese

8 medium-size beets

3-4 tablespoons raspberry vinegar

½ cup coarsely chopped walnuts

4 ounces crumbly soft goat cheese

3 tablespoons olive oil or walnut oil

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 375 F.

1. Peel beets and cut them into ½-inch dice. Toss with the raspberry vinegar and spread in one layer on a greased jelly roll pan. Roast in the preheated oven, turning once in a while and adding a bit of water if they seem dry. Roast for 25-30 minutes, or until you can pierce them with a sharp knife. dry. Cool completely.

2. Lightly roast the walnuts in a pan. Cool.

3. Whisk oil and red wine vinegar. Season with salt and pepper.

4. Toss dressing with the beets, walnuts and crumbled goat cheese.