If all you know of beets is the vinegary purple disks that grace every salad bar in the country, you might be forgiven for thinking poorly of them. In Europe, beets were grown because they kept well over the winter and could be fed to cows, associating them with poverty. But properly cooked, they are a delight, and the new yellow and striped varieties don’t even stain.
I always liked beets, even the pickled variety. My grandparents ate borscht, which is a deep purple beet soup that turns shocking pink once you add sour cream. I have to say that the color turned me off and I never tried it. I haven’t had an opportunity to taste it as an adult, but I’d probably like it.
There are a number of varieties of beets in addition to the deep purple ones you probably know. The sugar beet is an important source of white sugar, second only to sugar cane. Yellow and striped beets are pretty common in farmers markets these days. There is an organic compound, geosmin, that adds an “earthy taste” to beets that is stronger in the non-purple varieties, making the purple ones the best for sweetness.
The most common ways to prepare beets are boiling and roasting. I’ve always boiled them: Cut the greens off the beet, leaving about a half-inch of stem. Wash the outsides well, but don’t peel them or cut off the roots or the beets will “bleed” into the cooking water. Simmer until the beets can be pierced with a skewer with just a slight resistance. This can take between 20 minutes and an hour, depending on the size of the beet and how many you are cooking. Let them cool, then slide the skin off, cut off the ends, and you are ready to go. The skin of a cooked beet can be rubbed off pretty easily. Recalcitrant pieces can be taken off with a vegetable peeler.
As for roasting, virtually every recipe I’ve seen calls for wrapping the beets in foil and baking them for an hour. To me, this is more steaming than baking. Boiling takes less time and doesn’t seem to affect the taste. Just recently, my friend Jess Thomson, a recipe developer and food writer in Seattle, opened my eyes to roasted beets. She cuts the beets into chunks, adds a little olive oil and sherry vinegar, and bakes them in a hot oven for about 45 minutes. They cook nicely, taking on a really good roasted flavor. She doesn’t even bother to peel the beets if they are small and tender. It looks especially appealing if you mix the beets, having an array of purple, striped and yellow pieces. Take a look at her blog, Hogwash, for recipes as well as some acerbic wit.
I’ve also seen recipes for raw grated beet and carrot salad. I tried using striped beets, which did not give a good flavor, so I’d suggest purple beets since they are sweeter. Beet carpaccio is also a popular item on menus these days. Beef carpaccio is thinly sliced raw beef topped with olive oil, arugula and Parmesan shavings. Beet carpaccio takes cooked beets, slices them thin and serves them with a salad and sharp cheese. The thin slices and the garnishes seem the only thing the two have in common.
When you buy beets, they usually come with the greens attached, which is a great bonus. The greens were once sold as red chard (chard, by the way, is a variety of beet that is bred for its leaves rather than its root). The day you bring the beets home, cut off the greens, leaving about a half inch of stem attached to the beet root. The greens are usually gritty so wash them really well and shake them dry. Then wrap them in a paper towel, place them in a plastic bag and put it in the refrigerator. You have a couple of days to cook the greens, either alone or in combination with any of the dozen other greens available this time of year. Saute a clove or two of sliced garlic in olive oil in a large frying pan, then cut the greens into ribbons and add them to the pan with a splash of water. Cover and let steam for 5 minutes, until the greens are wilted. Remove the cover from the pan and let them dry for a minute or two, then serve with vinegar or hot sauce. If you want to get elaborate, add them to a gumbo z’herbes, a green gumbo that typically contains seven types of green. It is traditionally meatless, but a smoked ham hock or some andouille sausage picks the taste right up.
Cooked beets last for a while in the fridge. Add sliced or diced beets to a salad or cook them into a side dish. My daughter-in-law Katie makes a great beet and spinach salad that is richly colored and easy to make year-round. In France, it seems that every open-air market and supermarket has cooked, peeled beets packed in plastic for sale with the other vegetables. They are often used in a salad composée, a plate with small piles of various julienned vegetables, drizzled with vinaigrette.
Two traditional New England beet dishes are Harvard Beets and Red Flannel Hash. Whether Harvard Beets actually originated at Harvard is something for the food historian, but they are essentially cooked beets simmered in a sweet and sour sauce. I used to make them a lot, but no one really liked them so I’ve graduated to an orange sauce that meets with approval. One food historian says that this version is called “Yale Beets” but I think that’s stretching it a little.
To make Red Flannel Hash, chop a mixture of cooked corned beef, potatoes and beets – the leftovers from last night’s boiled dinner – and sauté them together. The beets stain the hash, giving it its name. My friend Jeff, who has spent 20 years eating his way around New England, once ordered Red Flannel Hash only to be served canned hash with beets on the side. When he inquired, the waiter told him they put the beets on the side because they made the hash red.
Beets and orange have a great affinity for each other. I have made recipes that alternate beet and orange slices in a rosewater-flavored vinaigrette and they make a nice presentation. Assemble the salad at the last minute to avoid the beets staining the orange. If you have any orange dust lying around, sprinkle it on some beets, either cold or warmed in butter, for a great flavor.
Originally printed Daily Hampshire Gazette, July 25, 2008