Root to Leaf

March 24, 2012

We hear a lot of talk about “Nose to Tail” eating, there are whole books about honouring each and every part of the animal. I personally love the comeback of this trend, the reappearance of some of the most delicious animal parts. But what about cooking whole vegetables? It’s coming back too, but still, hardly anyone talks about that.

In her book, An Everlasting Meal, Tamar Adler talks at lengths about being frugal with vegetable scraps. It has really made me think about all of the wasted onion and leek tops, tossed parsley and kale stems, forgotten cabbage cores. This is all first rate stuff if you know what to do with it. I’ve actually been incorporating many of her tips in every day cooking. So many of her ideas are trivial, yet unfortunately so forgotten.

This soup sort of resembles borscht, and is made with whole beets – from root to leaf. Borscht, in general, has many variations, depending on the cook and the region it comes from. I have eaten borscht in many households, and it has yet to disappoint. There are no strict rules, just some guidelines, and each cook will have his or her own guidelines. Even one cook’s borscht will vary from time to time.

My guidelines are a good meaty broth, sweetness, lots of garlic, and a little bit of acidity. Everything in between is a whim. Although I bet it would taste ok with a vegetarian broth, I really encourage a flavourful beef or pork broth, I’ve even tried it with duck. Meat picked off the bone and thrown in won’t hurt either, if you’re making the broth from scratch. The sweetness ideally comes from the beets, onions, and carrots. I hate to do this, but if the veggies are not at their optimal level of sweetness, and it happens, I add a little bit of sugar to bring out the other flavours.

whole beet soup

Whole Beet Soup with Lentils and Cumin
It’s tough to measure out exact quantities here, beet bunch sizes vary, so do the root to stem to leaf ratios. For 2 L of stock I used half of my (fairly large) bunch, about 1 lb root, 1 cup chopped stems, 1 cup chopped leaves. Using the whole thing (with 4 L of stock) would’ve made way too much soup. Overall it’s not that important to have exact proportions, like I said, each cook’s borscht turns out differently every time.
  • 1/2 – 1 bunch young beets
  • 1 tbsp cooking fat or oil (I used beef tallow)
  • 3 shallots or small cooking onions, thinly sliced
  • 5 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp cumin
  • 2 heaping tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 medium carrots, grated
  • 2 L meaty stock (beef or pork is ideal)
  • 1/2 cup french (puy) lentils
  • salt, lemon juice, and sugar to taste
  • sour cream for garnish (optional)
  1. To prepare beets, trim, peel, and coarsely grate the beet roots. Then separate the stems from the leaves and chop separately.
  2. In a large pot or dutch oven, over medium heat, melt the fat or oil.
  3. Saute onions and garlic with a few pinches of salt until very soft, add cumin and cook another few minutes.
  4. Add tomato paste and a few Tbsp. of the stock, combine and cook for another few minutes.
  5. Add the grated beet root and carrots and saute until soft, about 10 minutes.
  6. Add the rest of the stock and bring to a boil over high heat.
  7. Add lentils and beet stems.
  8. Lower heat to medium-low and simmer for about 45 minutes to an hour, until lentils are cooked through.
  9. Adjust seasoning with salt and lemon juice. Taste the soup again and if necessary, add sugar, a couple of teaspoons at a time until the soup tastes balanced with a hint of sweetness. It doesn’t take a lot of sugar, but makes a huge difference.
  10. Add chopped beet greens and stir to wilt.
Serve hot with sour cream.

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