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Groundwork: The Humble, Magnificent Beet

Larkspur add a dash of color at the verdant vegetable garden at Green Spring Gardens. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

Meanwhile back at the ranch, sorry, the Green Spring Gardens plot in Northern Virginia, we are reaping the harvests of late spring. The lettuce and endive is bolting, but still yummy, the spring onions are ready, and the once harvested broccoli has put out lateral florets ready for the taking.

The deer ate the tops off the Swiss chard, they've been replaced with transplants, which are now under some serious netting. "It looks like Fort Knox," said Cindy Brown as she directed a team of Thursday morning volunteers.

The big story is the rain. Too much of it, really. Seeds and bulbs of summer crops that were not in active growth have rotted. Cindy and the gang have given up sowing the summer squash directly in the garden. It's now germinating in the greenhouse and will go in when the soil dries out a bit. "If we didn't have raised beds," she said, "we would be sinking, literally. The compost is melting, it's not even rotting."

The good news is that the beets are coming into harvest. Sown in March, they have been bulbing up the last couple of weeks and have reached a good size. Beets are a great vegetable in these thrifty times. The tops are edible, along with the roots. The veggie is closely related to the Swiss chard.

Beet, ready for harvest. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

Some beet varieties have been developed for their leafy greens, including Lutz. The baby beet greens you see in mesclun mixes is a variety called Bull's Blood. Both Lutz and Bull's Blood, if allowed to grow to maturity, make splended beet roots, too.

Beets are as versatile in the garden as leeks. They can be grown in every month of the year, although they prefer to mature in the coolers weeks of spring and in the fall. The rain causes soil to crust, so it's important to cultivate the earth around beets, carrots and other root crops. But be careful not to wound the veggies. Beets can be harvested mature after about eight weeks from sowing. Harvest beets for their baby leaves at 35 days, but use scissors to remove individual leaves so others can grow back from the crown. Even watering is important during hot weather to prevent stress that will degrade the quality of the root.

If your beets are not swelling, they are probably in too much shade.
Watering hasn't been much of an issue this spring. Cindy and I were examining the normally gorgeous flowers of the fava bean, and noticed many were simply rotting before pollination with the loss of the pod. However, the pods ripen successively, and Cindy has already harvested a fair number of these broad beans, which were sown on March 15.

The elephant garlic is just beginning to bloom. The flowers burst out of their buds and turn from white to cream to purple as they age. Cindy thinks they're the prettiest of the edible alliums, so I grabbed the camera and took this shot.

Elephant garlic trumpets its bloom. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

We hope the garden will be a bit drier next week, when it will begin to take on its summer persona.

The pole beans are hanging in there. The rain stopped the cauliflowers in their tracks; the flowerbuds sort of went bad or bolted. Cindy will sow seeds again in a month and plant them out in late August for a fall crop.

The beauty of vegetable gardening is that the setbacks are only temporary. And now, Cindy will attempt to deconstruct borscht. Next week, we will tell you what to do with all those kohlrabi.
-- Adrian Higgins

Deconstructed Summer Borscht
4 to 6 servings

Gardener Cynthia Brown thought up this recipe while she was on the way home from work. She considered making borscht but wasn't in the mood for soup, so she used vegetables and flavors featured in borscht recipes.

This dish goes well with steak, which is what her husband sometimes likes for dinner. She popped two halves of a strip steak into the same skillet used to cook the vegetables, then served slices of the steak over mounds of the deconstructed borscht. Plan on about 15 minutes of chopping time.

A topping of yogurt or goat cheese might be nice to serve with a meatless portion of these (mostly) sauteed vegetables.

From Cynthia A. Brown, assistant director at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria.

1 1/2 to 2 pounds beets, with greens attached (3 medium)
1 pound (1/2 small head) red cabbage (core removed), cut into thin slices
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into very thin sticks (julienne)
1 small Vidalia (or sweet) onion, cut into thin slices
1 small or 1/2 large (8 ounces) fennel bulb (core removed), cut into very thin slices
20 grape tomatoes, each cut in half
Fronds from several sprigs of dill, chopped (2 tablespoons)
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons olive oil
Juiceof 1/2 lemon (at least 1 tablespoon), plus lemon wedges for garnish
4 teaspoons fresh or store-bought horseradish (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper

Don food-safe gloves (unless you don't mind beet juice on your hands).

Remove the beet greens, tear the leaves from the ribs, then stack the leaves and roll them tightly; cut them crosswise into thin strips (chiffonade). Use a vegetable peeler to peel the beets, then cut them into thin rounds and then into matchsticks.

Place the cherry tomato halves in a large serving bowl. (As you add the other vegetables to the bowl after they have been sauteed, their heat will warm and slightly soften the tomatoes.)

Heat a large skillet to almost medium-high heat; the pan should be hot enough to “sear” the vegetables, but not hot enough to brown them. Add a tablespoon of the oil, then add the cabbage and cook for 2 minutes, stirring, until it has wilted slightly. Add the beet greens and cook for 1 minute, stirring. Transfer the cabbage and beet greens to the bowl with the tomatoes; return the skillet to the (same) heat.

Add a tablespoon of the oil; when it is hot, add the carrots and onions. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring; the vegetables will still be crisp. Transfer to the bowl and return the skillet to the heat.

Add a tablespoon of oil; when it is hot, add the beets and cook for 2 minutes, stirring, then transfer to the bowl. Return the skillet to the heat, then add the fennel (no further need to add oil). Cook for 1 minute, stirring, then transfer to the bowl.

Add the chopped dill to the bowl; season the vegetable mixture with salt and pepper to taste. Toss, then add half the lemon juice and toss to incorporate.

Divide the vegetable mixture among individual plates; serve warm or at room temperature with a teaspoon of horseradish and a lemon wedge for each portion.

Per serving (based on 6): 169 calories, 4 g protein, 25 g carbohydrates, 7 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 172 mg sodium, 7 g dietary fiber, 14 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  June 15, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Green Spring Gardens  
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