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Beet it!

Discover the taste of beets straight from the ground and bursting with sweet flavor.

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Alas, beets are a mess to cook, too. I cook with them so often that it doesn't bother me; I've learned how to handle the red roots. Here is a simple way of dealing with this messy vegetable.

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After cutting off the greens but leaving a finger width of the stems attached, wash the beets and cover the roots with well-salted water. Be careful not to pierce the skin, which would allow both the beautiful color and some of the nutrients to escape into the water. Bring the water to the boil in a pan. When at full boil, turn the heat down to a bare simmer, cover the pot, and cook the roots 45 to 60 minutes for large beets or around 30 minutes for the smaller ones. Pierce one with a skewer to feel if it is fully tender.

When cooked, drain. If you have rubber gloves, use them to avoid staining your hands and fingernails. (With gloves you can handle the beets while still hot.)

Place beets on a cutting board, cut a thin sliver off tops and bottoms and, with a slight rubbing motion, slip off the peel. Cut them into slices, squares, or any shape you desire, and they are ready for a second cooking.

Place the beets in a little butter or olive oil, sautéing gently until they are just heated through. Salt, pepper, anise, caraway seeds, fennel, ginger, and savory go particularly well with beets to complement their flavor.

Roasting beets like potatoes is one more easy and very flavorful way to cook them. Trim greens off and wash beet roots. Place in a foil-lined baking pan, rub with oil and roast in a 400 degree F. oven for 30 to 60 minutes, depending on their size. The beet sugar caramelizes, giving the roots a flavor that belongs on gourmet menus. With their assertive flavor, serve beet roots only with highly flavored meats: roasts and fried meats. Or if your meal is vegetarian, with strongly flavored vegetables.

Should you be new to beets, a good place to start is a recipe that results in a mild beet flavor such as Beet Roesti.

This beet pancake makes a sweet side dish.

1 pound beets, peeled and coarsely grated (with hand grater or in food processor)

1/2 cup flour

1 tablespoon oil, divided

1 tablespoon butter, divided

2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Toss grated beets with flour in a large bowl. Heat a sauté pan over medium-high heat. When very hot, add half the oil and half the butter, then toss in beets, evening them out in pan and pressing them down with a metal spatula into a circle. Reduce heat to low.

Brown slowly until crisp on bottom, 13 to 15 minutes. Sprinkle with rosemary, salt, and pepper.

Loosen beets that may be sticking to the pan, place a large plate over pan, and, using oven mitts, hold pan and plate together and turn them upside down so beets land on the plate, browned side up.

Return pan to low heat. Add remaining oil and butter. Slide beets back in pan from the plate to brown second side, 5 to 10 minutes. Serve immediately. Serves 4.