05/15/2013 08:33 am ET Updated Jul 15, 2013

Cooking Off the Cuff: Are They Beets Yet?

I'm always a little surprised when I see people discarding the greens from the beets they buy at the market. I'm sure they make good compost, but they make better eating; they taste very much like Swiss chard, which is no surprise considering how closely related the two plants are.

So, on a recent visit to New York's Union Square farmers' market I smiled when I reached the Migliorelli Farm stand and saw big bunches of early-season beet greens with the tiny roots still attached. In a couple of weeks, these would be recognizable beets, but for the moment they were sub-bite-sized nodules sprouting luxuriant red-veined foliage. I imagine they'd been picked with the purpose of thinning the rows, but that took nothing away from their potential as dinner.

So I bought a big bunch, washed them thoroughly (it took four vigorous rinses to get rid of the grit captured by the stems down at the root end) and with Jackie's help plucked off the wispy root strand at the end of each plant. We did not separate the leaves from the minuscule roots or cut them up in any way: they were young and would be tender when cooked.

The way forward was pretty clear: I simply crammed them into a pan with some olive oil in which I'd previously sweated some finely chopped ginger, covered the pan over medium-low heat and turned the beets with tongs until they were wilted and tender but not mushy, removing the lid when they were nearly done. Why ginger? Why no onion and/or garlic? On the latter question, it was because I'd never before used beets at this pre-beet stage and wanted to leave the flavor as clear as possible. As to the ginger, it seemed to me that this would offer a boost without too much complication. (Plus, truth to tell, I've been on a ginger binge recently; as I write this, a pot of sauerkraut is simmering, and in addition to the usual aromatics it contains a couple of slices of ginger. These little fads often lead to good discoveries.) Once they were done, I checked for salt and let them cool: they are best served tepid -- and with a squeeze of lemon juice. (And yes, of course you can do this with normal beet greens.)

What would we serve them with? It somehow wasn't a day for meat or fish, though the beets would have been good with either. One idea was simply to grill some bread, brush it with olive oil and have a dinner of beet-plant bruschetta. But while in this Italianate frame of mind I remembered half a basket of excellent sheep-milk ricotta from Dancing Ewe Farm, and this got me thinking of pancakes (even though this kind of fluffy, well-drained ricotta is best eaten plain, perhaps with honey and toasted walnuts). There was also a bunch of farmers-market scallions that would make these especially delicious.

I made the batter by creaming the ricotta (300 grams -- a bit more than 10 ounces) in the food processor then transferring it to a bowl. I beat in three egg yolks: the whites of the scallions well sweated in butter -- almost starting to caramelize; three tablespoons grated pecorino (to maintain the sheep theme, though in retrospect I'd have been better off without its assertive flavor and its distracting texture); the grated zest of a medium lemon; about 2/3 cup of chopped raw scallion greens; and salt and pepper. Chopped sage leaves would have been a good addition too. I then beat the three egg whites until they formed soft peaks and folded them in. I cooked them fairly slowly in neutral oil with some butter for flavor. (Such pancakes are best eaten fresh out of the skillet: the egg whites collapse quickly, and the texture changes.)

These pancakes were a fine accompaniment to the not-quite-beets and their greens -- or was it the other way around? For Jackie and me, the tangle of tender red and green vegetable was the star; others might have seen it as a side dish. Either way, I'm glad the farmer brought these to market.

Are They Beets Yet?