I recently made Pantzaria or Beet Salad for my family, and it brought back some memories. My grandmother Flossie Skaggs loved to make pickled beets when my mother was growing up. Not only did Grandma grow the beets in her garden, she made a special trip from the farm in Ohio to eastern Kentucky, where she grew up, to roam the hills for her mountain tea as she called it. A leaf of this plant was tucked inside of each jar of pickled beets she produced. Unfortunately, my family couldn’t get to Ohio very often to get our dose of pickled beets as we lived in Roswell, New Mexico. Many years later when I quizzed my relatives about what exactly mountain tea was, no one knew. I sent an email describing my grandmother’s pickled beets to the Kentucky commissioner of agriculture who replied to me that mountain tea was simply wintergreen.
About 20 years later, I was re-introduced to beets when my husband and I moved to live in a suburb of Athens, Greece. Each Friday in Aghia Paraskevi, the laiki agora was held just off the main square. This huge outdoor market offered everything from eggs, cheese, fresh chickens, herbs, vegetables and fruits, as well as clothing, shoes, pots and pans. Farmers and merchants brought their wares to these traveling markets. Each area of Athens has its own market. Aghia Paraskevi was on Friday. Kipseli‘s was on Tuesday. Each Friday I put Antigone in the stroller, took Vera by the hand, and grabbed my shopping cart on two wheels. I planned my route through the market to include Mr. Thanassis who sold the best fruit; Mr. Dimitri had good prices on potatoes; Mrs. Artemis offered fresh eggs. And Mr. Yiannis had the freshest spinach and beets. Sometimes, I even found tiny snails still prowling the jungle of those dark greens as I began to wash them. Mr. Yiannis didn’t just hand me the spinach and beets from on top of his table; he reached under the table where he kept the best produce for his favorite customers. Luck must have fallen on this homesick American mother of two because I was one of his favorites.
On many of those Fridays after returning from the laiki agora and settling the girls down for their naps, I began preparing the beets. I think what many people miss in eating beets from a can or jar are the greens. I separated the root bulb from the greens and placed the washed bulbs in a pot of water to boil. While the roots boiled, I washed and re-washed the stems and greens to remove all the grit. After about a half hour of boiling the bulbs, I plunged them into cold water. Then I squeezed the skins right off! I sliced the bulbs back into the empty pot and packed the chopped stems and greens on top. After about 20 minutes of boiling, they were done, and I drained the water off. While still hot in the pot, I added salt, vinegar or lemon juice and olive oil to taste. Set aside and serve cold or at room temperature. *
According to OrganicGardening.com: “High in fiber and rich in vitamins A and C, beets have more iron than other vegetables, including spinach. And they’re rich in calcium, potassium, and phosphorus, as well as folic acid, which helps protect you from heart disease and guards against birth defects. Better yet, the classic beet’s red coloring comes from betalains—a combination of the purple pigment betacyanin and the yellow pigment betaxanthin. ‘The betalain pigments are potent antioxidants,’ says Irwin Goldman, Ph.D., a beet geneticist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Antioxidants deter the formation of cancer-causing free radicals. “
* If you’re making pantzaria for your Easter meal, save the beet juice to dye your eggs!