Sunday, July 7, 2013

Fusilli with Beet Greens, Currants, Pine Nuts & Feta

Last month I posted a description of an evening meal that included a side of wilted greens.  On that particular occasion I had intended to use Swiss chard for my greens, but discovered when I started to cook that I was a bit short on chard.  Fortunately I had some beets with the greens still attached, so I was able to supplement my chard with some of the beet greens.   As I remarked in that post, if you have never had beet greens, you are missing out.   And since they pretty much come free with the beets, they are a great means of extending your food dollars.   
As it turns out, it isn't much of a stretch to replace (or supplement) chard with beet greens in your cooking.  They—along with spinach—are members of the same plant family...the goosefoot family.  (For those interested in a little plant trivia, you will be interested to know that this family of plants also includes epazote, lamb's quarters and—most surprisingly—quinoa.)  In fact, beets and chard happen to be the same plant (Beta vulgaris)—just different cultivars..   They can be cooked and served in the same manner.   I think beet greens have a more pronounced, earthy flavor...but for the most part, if you want to use up those greens that came with your beets, you can try them in any favorite recipe that calls for Swiss chard (grain salads or pilafs, quiche/frittata, soup, pasta, etc.).    
The first time I ever tasted beet greens they were used to sauce pasta.  The recipe was from Alice Water's Chez Panisse Vegetables.  It is still a favorite recipe—I have altered it only slightly over the years.  I have added a garnish of Feta (Ricotta Salata will work too--a salty cheese does great things for the sweet and earthy flavors of this dish) and a scattering of pine nuts.  Beyond that, probably the most important change I made is that I don't include the stems of the beets.  Alice Waters directs you to include them (cutting them into two inch lengths and adding them to the onions with the leaves).  This only works if you have the most tender and freshest of beets.  I found them to be a big stringy and unpleasant on one occasion, so I have left them out ever since.
If you don't have any beet greens, you could obviously make this pasta with Swiss will be delicious.  But if you happen to have some beets on hand (from your last trip to the farmers' market...or in your CSA share), I wanted to post this recipe so you will be motivated to save those greens rather than just discarding them out of habit.  (Something many people do...I was shocked during a recent trip to the grocery store when the clerk offered to cut the greens off and throw them away for me.)   The beet greens will require a bit more picking over than chard...but that's OK, they're usually pretty abundant.  And, I predict that once you sample those greens, you will begin choosing your beets with an eye towards not just the condition of the root, but the condition of the leafy tops as well.

Fusilli with Beet Greens, Feta & Pine Nuts

 2 T. Olive oil
1 medium red onion, finely diced
1 fat clove of garlic, chopped
pinch of pepper flakes
6 oz. trimmed beet greens (This will probably require two bunches of beets.  Pick through the greens, discarding any that are yellowing or wilted.  Then, strip away the stems.  If the leaves are very large, cut crosswise into a wide chiffonade.  Rinse the greens well.)
1/4 c. currants, plumped in hot water for 15 minutes and drained
2 T. mint chiffonade (see notes)
2 heaping T. pine nuts, toasted
2 oz. Feta (or Ricotta Salata), crumbled
8 oz. Fusilli
1/2 to 1 T. Extra Virgin Olive oil
Warm the olive oil in a wide sauté pan set over moderate heat.  Add the onions and garlic, along with the pepper flakes and a pinch of salt and sweat until the onions are tender and beginning to turn golden.   Add the beet greens a handful at a time, turning them with a pair of tongs so that they are coated in the hot oil and onions, and adding another handful as each previous handful begins to collapse.  When the greens have collapsed, add the currants. 
Cover and cook until the greens are tender—about 5 minutes.  Uncover the pan, reduce the heat to the very lowest setting to keep the greens warm while you cook the pasta.
While the greens are cooking, bring 6 quarts of water to the boil in a large stock/pasta pot.  Add 2 to 3 Tablespoons of salt.  Add the fusilli and cook until al dente.  Drain, reserving some of the pasta water.  Add the mint and the fusilli to the greens and toss to combine.  If the pasta seems dry, add a bit of reserved pasta water.  Drizzle some extra virgin olive oil and toss again.  Serve, garnished with the pine nuts and Feta.  Serves 2 to 3.

  • This pasta can be doubled to serve 4 to 6.  Use a larger sauté pan.
  • If you don't have any fresh mint, add some dried oregano instead to the onions while they cook—1/2 teaspoon or so. 
(Recipe adapted from Chez Panisse Vegetables by Alice Waters)

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