Sunday, July 17, 2016

Beetroot Tops - How to Cook Them

Travel can inform you in many surprising and delightful ways.  So there we were, on our first visit to Greece, sitting in a seafront taverna on the island of Kos when I discovered two things:

1.  You can eat beetroot tops.  I found this out when I asked the waiter what the plate of greens were that the nice young men on the next table were eating with their lunch. He just said horta, and when I looked perplexed beckoned me into the kitchen to see for myself - a common and endearing occurrence in Green tavernas.  Sitting on the bench top in the kitchen was a pile of fresh purple beets with their chopped off stems and leaves being washed in the sink. "There" said the waiter, pointing to the pile of wet greens, "horta."

2.  Horta - horticulturist. Horta in Greek roughly translates as 'greens' - growing from the earth.  So there we have it - my qualifications are in growing green things from the earth.

I don't know about you, but I didn't know you could eat beetroot tops because we never did in our family - and I never knew any other English family that did either.  This is in spite of growing beetroots in our veggie garden and throwing away the beautiful fresh leaves and just eating the ruby red beets - usually cooked and pickled in vinegar or, heaven forbid in Aunty Phil's famous raspberry jelly relish! Greens for us were cabbage or collards that were put on to boil usually when the roast went in the oven!

Greek island of Kos, where East meets West

Now with many more years on the clock than I dare to think about, I have been exposed, through travel and the multi-cultural melting pot that is Australia to eating the gloriously sweet ruby red beetroot every which way; grated in a dip with garlic and yoghurt, roasted in a salad with feta and pecans, making a magic marriage in beetroot and chocolate brownies, or simply freshly grated in a rainbow salad with honey and lemon dressing.  And, you did know that beetroot is incredibly good for you?

"Researchers at Waker Forest University in North Carolina have shown that a diet that includes about 500ml of beetroot juice per day helps improve blood flow to certain regions of the brain in older people. In particular the effects were noted in the frontal lobe - a part of the brain that commonly experiences reduced blood flow in age-related dementia and cognitive decline. The effect is likely to occur because beetroot juice (like spinach, celery, cabbage and other leafy green vegetables) is a good source of nitrates. These compounds are converted into nitrites by the good bacteria in the mouth, and act as vasodilators - in other words they have the capacity to open the blood vessels and enhance blood flow" Gardening Australia 2011

But it was in Greece that I first encountered eating the tops - the leaves and stems. You will find horta on the menu in just about every Greek taverna - especially in the springtime for they are traditionally any edible wild greens that scatter the hillsides and form an important part of the healthy Mediterranean diet. Collecting these free and wild greens is a common pastime for most Greek families - so if you are out in the middle of nowhere and you see moped parked with a distant figure hallway up the hillside, you know what they are doing.
Another good horta - sorrel

As well as beet leaves, the generic horta also includes; spiny chicory, chard, fennel, purslane, sorrel, dandelion, amaranth, wild spinach, rocket and many more that I haven't been able to identify yet. I think the reason why I have taken to enjoying horta so much is that they are mostly (apart from kale) not in the cabbage family so don't have that sulphury smell associated with the dreaded 'greens' from my childhood - plus, they are really delicious.

The secret to enjoying this dish is that the leaves have to be really fresh - in this case, freshly pulled beetroot.  I am lucky that our farmers' market in Mullumbimby have locally grown ones most of the year round and they look like they have just jumped out of the soil.  Here's how to prepare them:

1.  Cut off the stems and leaves and wash in them in several changes of water to make sure you have got rid of any dust and grit.
2.  Plunge them into a saucepan of boiling water and cook for 2-3 minutes until completely tender.
3.  Drain in a colander.
4.  Rinse out the saucepan and return to the heat with 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, freshly ground pepper and sea salt.
5.  Return the greens to the pan and toss through the oil, adding the freshly squeezed juice of one lemon.  That's it - horta.

"The world is a book, and those who don't travel only read one page"
St Augustine
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