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

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Victory (for now)

Every gardener has his/her nemesis. Mine is rabbits. But today I can declare at least a partial victory. I harvested a carrot!

When I started the garden in 2004, there was no initial problem. I guess the rabbits just hadn’t discovered the new organic supermarket in the neighborhood yet. But then, year after year, they became more voracious. On top of it, I learned that rabbits go through seasonal taste changes – a vegetable that they leave alone one year is the first to be wiped out the next year. Slipping through the fence, the rabbits devoured basil, beet greens, carrot leaves (nibbled to the ground), blooming French filet beans, lettuce, radish leaves (it is a mystery to me how they can find those hairy, tough leaves tasty), spinach, pea seedlings, and Swiss chard. Tomatoes and eggplants, usually not rabbit fare, weren’t safe from them neither. They just bit off the tiny plants and spit them out.

I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to fight the rabbits with one ineffective remedy after another: hot pepper flakes, anti-rabbit spray with a nauseating smell, granulated fox urine, pieces of garden hose that were supposed to look like snakes, mint sprigs, cotton balls soaked in vinegar and tossed all over the garden, ammonia-soaked rugs hung over the fence, dangling CDs, flashing bike lights at night, dog hair, plastic cups filled with moth balls that had to carefully drained far from the garden after every rain…

After nothing worked, it was either putting up another fence, or giving up the garden. Last spring we reached deep into our pockets and put up a second fence of sturdy hard-wire cloth. Over several weeks my beloved undertook the backbreaking task of digging a trench around the entire garden and packing it with 2B modified gravel. But it still wasn’t enough to keep the rabbits out – they simply jumped over the new fence through the old fence and wrecked havoc. So we reached even deeper into our pockets and doubled the height of the fence. Finally it worked! We named it “Berlin Wall No. 2”. Except for the occasional toad I have spotted no living being without wings in the garden ever since.

Lately I noticed that something is devouring the new stems of the Charantais French breakfast melon, which is growing on trellises outside the fenced-in area.  I console myself with the thought that in a few weeks, I would have to prune out the abundant growth anyway so the rabbits are doing the job for me. What the rabbits don’t know: next year, I will plant everything behind the Iron Curtain.