Cooking up a treat with a bunch of beetroot leaves

An “early” harvest from the garden brings a lovely problem: what to do with those large beetroot leaves? It seems such a waste to discard them.

The urban jungle – or maybe just the jungle, given how they have grown in the garden – says they can be cooked. Ever since a neighbour brought his whopping baseball sized beetroots (I exaggerate, but only just) back from his allotment last year, I made a mental note to look up whether the flurry of greenery was edible. Consensus is yes, they can be used like chard – and they taste like spinach when cooked. But how?

For some reason, just a couple of beetroot (which have been big this year because of the month of May without rain) have produced enough greenery to look like flowers in a vase. Another use, in a heatwave, might seem to be as a fan. But they are not that sturdy.

Beetroot leaves looking like flowers in a vase
Beetroot leaves looking like flowers in a vase (discard faded bits before cooking)

An Internet search for recipes paid dividends. One YouTube video (and there are many on the subject) suggested an intriguing recipe – but perhaps for advanced tastes. Having chopped off and chopped up the stalks, the cook chopped up the leaves too (discard any leaves that are no longer green). So far, so understood.

Then the fun started. The presenter also chopped a whole clove of garlic and began to sweat it in a pan. (Please don’t confuse me with being a cooking expert. Or, indeed, an expert in growing vegetables. It is all one big experiment – a joyous voyage of discovery in hobby form!) To this already powerful sounding concoction, he added chopped spring onions. Only then did the beetroot stems go in – because they take longer to soften – and a little later the leaves. In addition, he added a tin of finely chopped tomatoes and a little salt and pepper. Serve with quinoa or rice.

A full dish. All delicious, no doubt, if you like the dominance of garlic. But when you have something as strong tasting as beetroot leaves and stems, why would you want to obscure their taste? I wanted to make the taste the centre of the dish, not obliterate its flavours, especially as the flavour was new to me.

Another recipe suggested boiling the beetroot in minimal water in a pan, then serving with a garnish of cold spring onions. Or chilli flakes. Again with the mix of big, strong flavours! I’ve watched enough Masterchef to know that Greg Wallace and Jonte Rhodes wouldn’t tolerate such a smorgasbord for the taste buds. Too much! Too much! Especially for the beetroot leaf novice. I must wait to progress to “secure” or “mastered”, in the school marking modern parlance, before advancing past “new interest/beginner”.

Half a dozen eggs would be needed to make up a flan recipe which showed promise as a main course. Equally, Indian dishes would suit the taste. I love a “Saag Aloo” (spinach and potatoes) or “Saag chicken” at my local curry house, and beetroot leaves would seem easy enough to add to a potato dish. Saute them in butter for a few minutes and with a sprinkling of grated Parmesan cheese, as suggested by a friend, also sounded tasty. In lockdown, however, such cheese delicacies are infrequently bought. Maybe another time.

A basic way to cook and taste them is what is required. To try them out. For now, the simplest of recipes meant softening them in a pan in butter – a little more than you might think, the second attempt proved – and add a pinch of salt.

A third effort used the merest trace of garlic, for a gentle hint of flavour. Just a few minutes cooking and they seemed perfect, as a dish of “greens” with a main meal. They were not competing with other big, jazzy flavours. And they definitely tasted pretty much like spinach.

Those beetroot leaves really do dominate a garden veggie patch. While, in March or April, we want to maximise whatever space we can allow for vegetables, it really does seem to pay if you treat the spacing guidelines on the packet as an absolute minimum. I seem to remember using them precisely, but when big foliage is produced, it pays to be able to pick out every other beetroot when they look ready.

Beetroots produce a huge amount of leaves
Beetroots produce a huge amount of leaves. Aim to pick “every other one” as they grow