THE BEET GOES ON: A MARKET STORY
Early summer is the juiciest time of year. Cherries, berries, tomatoes, spring onions and garlic—even the lettuces and new potatoes are heavy with juice. But this day at the Union Square Greenmarket, I find myself gravitating toward a heap of the season’s first beets. They are so fresh that their thick, leafy tops still feel alive to the touch. Before I know it, I’ve gathered an armload and stand in line, waiting to pay and marveling at those in front of me who request that their beet greens be wrenched off and discarded. By the time I’d eased up to the cash register, there was a plastic crate full of them, and, at an inquiring nod from me, the farmer stuffed a few huge handfuls into my bag. “Glad these won’t go to waste,” he said.
Beet greens have a mild, minerally flavor that feints and parries with sharper, more assertive greens. It’s the texture, though, that I especially love: When cooked, the succulent greens turn lush and satiny. Quickly braised with garlic and red-pepper flakes, they go with almost everything under the sun, and if you want to take them in a different direction, simply steam them and toss with a ginger- and miso-spiked dressing.
Beet greens also give any vegetable soup great body and depth, and they suit the improvisational nature of a Creole gumbo z’herbes, which you would traditionally eat in New Orleans during Lent, particularly on Holy Thursday and, if you are very lucky, seated at Dooky Chase. Here in New York, I always bide my time until now, finally busting loose when locally grown tender young greens are—at last!—available farther north. Bunches of collards, mustard greens, kale, and chard soon find a home in my market bag, and for dinner that night we have big, restorative bowls of the gumbo ladled over rice.
“But what do you do with the beets?” a friend asks, a little crossly. Because these beauties are so juicy and thin-skinned (and I don’t mind magenta stains on my hands or cutting board), I don’t bother to peel them. I scrub them well and cut out any gnarly bits, then slice and dice and toss them into a pan with a glug of olive oil. I cook them over moderate heat until they start to soften, then add a little water and simmer until the beets are tender and the water evaporates. I’m in the mood to combine the beets with boiled new potatoes, a vinaigrette with some minced shallots smudged in, and a scattering of chopped fresh tarragon, rosemary, and thyme. Any leftovers are wonderful the next day, scooped up with crisp leaves of endive and eaten over the sink.