Cooking with Beet Greens

by Kemp Minifie, Gourmet

Beets, along with their bushy plumage of greens, are currently enjoying prime time status in farmers markets. The beet roots are plump and heavy with juice, the stalks are still youthfully sturdy-not withering with age-and the leaves live up to their name: They're vibrantly green.

What galls me is watching the number of shoppers who request the greens be removed when it's their turn at the cash register. Even sadder is the willingness with which the farmers or their assistants hack off the leaves without a word of encouragement to the unwitting buyer to keep them intact.

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Why do you think beets are sold with the greens, anyway? It's not just a marketing ploy, although robust greens means the roots are fresh. They're edible! You don't usually see the poisonous green leaves attached to rhubarb stalks, do you? But saying you can eat the leaves doesn't do them justice. They're loaded with nutrients-some statistics rate the greens higher than the root-which for me is an added plus, but not the reason I devour them. No, the truth is that I prefer beet greens to just about any other green.

I've turned into a farmers' market forager, gathering up the discarded leaves and feasting on the freebies at home. By sharing this secret, I risk missing out on the bounty in the future, but it's worth it to turn more of you onto the joys of beet greens.

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Some food writers liken the greens to spinach or chard, and you can treat them in a similar way, but I think beet greens beat both in texture and flavor. When cooked, the stalks are meaty while the leaves collapse into a silky tenderness. The total cooking time for stalks and leaves together is quick, at most 10 minutes.

Beet greens are delicious in dishes such as pasta, but if you just want a side of greens, here's what you do: Wash the leaves and stalks well; they can be really sandy, but don't spin them dry. Cook some finely chopped onion (about half a medium onion for 1 bunch of greens) with a pinch of salt in a skillet filmed with olive oil over medium heat until it's softened, then add the chopped up stems with another generous pinch of salt and about ¼ cup water, and braise them, covered, for 4 to 5 minutes, until they're tender. Now add the leaves with another pinch of salt, and braise them in the water still clinging to the leaves, covered, stirring once or twice, for 3 to 5 minutes, until they're completely wilted and tender. One bunch of cooked greens is just enough for two people, or a feast for one.

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