As a kid growing up in New York’s Hudson Valley, I learned a lot about the Iroquois, the group of Native American tribes indigenous to that area. I loved to hear about the stories, beliefs, language, and everyday practices that made up the traditional Iroquois way of life. But what fascinated me the most was, not surprisingly, their food. “They used every part of the animal,” I remember an elementary school teacher explaining to my class. “The meat, the hide or the feathers, the bones—everything!”
Now that I think of it, this was probably my first lesson in sustainable eating. And I was mesmerized. Those traditional Iroquois, as far as I was concerned, were the coolest thing ever.
Never getting a chance to try my luck at deer or wild turkey hunting, and becoming a vegetarian a few years after that, I could never quite emulate my heroes. But I still think of that lesson whenever I cook an occasional stand-in for meat—beets.
Beets figure prominently in many a vegetarian Jew’s springtime, when a roasted slice proudly fills the place of the shank bone at the Passover table. And come summer, they appear more frequently with their deep green and crimson leaves and deep red stems still intact and tender. The beet root has a great nutritional profile full of iron, potassium, magnesium, and folic acid, while the leaves pack the same calcium, iron, and array of vitamins that make all leafy greens so good for you. Some folks even argue that the leaves are even healthier than the bulb. During the summer, like my Iroquois role models, I get to use every part of this wonderful vegetable.
In additional to taking a holistic view of the beet, I recommend using it in dishes that are simple to prepare. Here is one recipe that works great if you want to use both the beet root and the greens, and another for those times when you’ve just used the root and want something exciting to do with the greens.
Simple Chunky Borscht (Adapted from The Joy of Cooking)
5 medium beets, greens separated and set aside, root peeled and julienned or diced
1 medium carrot, scrubbed and julienned or diced
1 clove garlic, minced
3 cups water
5 sets of beet greens, thoroughly washed and chopped, optional
1 Tbs. lemon juice
Splash of extra virgin olive oil, optional
1 tsp. salt, or to taste
A few grinds or pinches of black pepper
For garnish: a few dollops of sour cream, cubes of avocado, fresh dill or other herb (if you happen to come by some anise hyssop, use it! It’s delicious with borscht!)
In a medium saucepan, combine the beets, carrot, garlic, and water and heat to boiling. Lower heat and simmer, covered, for about 8 minutes or until the vegetables are just tender. Stir in the beet greens, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Serve right away for a warm treat, or refrigerate overnight to enjoy it chilled with more developed flavors. Garnish with sour cream or avocado and sprinkle with fresh dill.
Dilly Beet Greens (Adapted from Greens Glorious Greens!)
1 pound beet greens
1 T. extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium leek or 4 or 5 scallions, finely chopped
1 T. fresh dill, chopped
Salt and lemon juice to taste
Wash beet greens well and cut into 1-inch strips. In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat and sauté the leeks or scallions until just softened, then add the garlic and sauté another 30 seconds or so. Stir in beet greens and a few tablespoons water. Cover and allow to steam for 8-10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until greens are tender. Remove from heat, stir in dill, salt, and lemon juice, and serve.