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The leaves are for dessert
From savoury to sweet: beetroot is a very versatile vegetable, especially if you use the leaves and stems. This makes beetroot a wonderful ingredient in spring as well as in the colder months.
"In my homeland, we make soup with beetroot leaves", a Polish market seller tells me as I explicitly request beetroot with the leaves on. A quick Internet search reveals that "Botwinka" is a traditional Polish recipe which uses the leaves and stems of young beetroot, in addition to the root. The soup primarily consists of onions, celeriac, potatoes and beetroot – including the stems and leaves, which float in the soup as a garnish. This is a wonderful soup that proves that beetroot also makes a great spring vegetable.
At a presentation in Zermatt, a woman even told me that her grandmother had always cooked beetroot leaves because there wasn't a great selection of vegetables available in the mountains. Her grandmother would prepare the leaves in much the same way as Swiss chard is traditionally cooked: with Béchamel sauce and gratinated with cheese.
In my historic cookery books I have also found mentions that beetroot leaves used to be eaten in their entirety. In "Das neue Kochbuch für die fleischlosen Tage" (The new cookbook for meat-free days) from 1941, Albertina Hü writes that: "Young beetroot leaves are chopped finely and sautéed in oil with onions. This is a very healthy vegetable which is good for blood production." An excerpt from Ida Spühler's "Reformkochbuch" from 1920 states that: "beetroot stems can be cooked like Swiss chard, or prepared as a salad if they have been boiled."
The stems are also suitable for making compote. This is because they have a similar structure to that of rhubarb – another distant relative of beetroot. To make the compote, simply chop the stems into pieces and reduce with sugar and water. You can also use wine or fruit juice instead of water if you prefer. And there you have it – a quick dessert to surprise your guests.
It's quite possible that you've already eaten beetroot leaves without knowing. They're often an ingredient in microgreen salad mixes. This means that you can also grow beetroot leaves in small boxes on the windowsill and use them as a salad vegetable while they're very young.
It's very easy to spot the differences between various beetroot varieties: there are red, white, yellow and ringed beetroot. These days, our beetroot are usually red and spherical, while older varieties are longer in shape and can also be white or yellow. The current EU list includes 156 varieties of beetroot.
During different tastings, Philipp Holzherr from the rare varieties protection organization Pro Specie Rara observed that it is likely the red pigments (anthocyanins) that make beetroot taste more bitter: "Red beetroot have a much more earthy flavour than, for example, yellow ones", he says. Adding a little vinegar to the water is recommended when cooking yellow beetroot, to prevent the colour from fading.
With its beautiful red and white rings, the Chioggia beetroot is also healthy and available in many places. With this beetroot, the white circles disappear when it's cooked, so it's best to serve the Chioggia raw. It's also possible to keep the characteristic pattern by quickly blanching and seasoning it or fermenting it.
Pro Specie Rara has already conducted systematic tastings for beetroot, too. On a mission to find the rarest species, various varieties were tested and professionals used them in dishes. These experiments gave rise to exciting preparation methods, such as fermentation in bran for the Chioggia variety. Or, if you take Pro Specie Rara's advice, you can also pickle Chioggia in cider vinegar and then use it as an ingredient in desserts, combined with white chocolate. It goes without saying that the bulb can be used in desserts, just as the stem can. Although it's obvious from the flavour of the stem that it's related to Swiss chard, the bulb is more similar to sugar beet.
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