At French markets, the beets get baked before they're sold

At a farmer's market in France, it's always a pleasure to see fresh vegetables from nearby country gardens. Long braids of yellow onions hang from the stalls. Neat baskets and boxes hold tiny orange carrots, slender green beans, apples and artichokes, Swiss chard, and leeks. Thyme and rosemary, tarragon and mint -- all kinds of fragrant herbs are tied fresh in bouquets or dried in bunches and packets.

But there's one surprise in these cornucopias of bountiful fresh produce -- red beets, or beetroot as many call it.

When you buy beets at a French greengrocer, you'll find they've been cooked and are ready to take home to pickle, use as a garnish, or serve with a delicious sauce over them.

This is a great convenience since whole beets take longer to cook than most vegetables, but it seems strange to an American shopper accustomed to seeing raw beets in the supermarket, with the large green-red leaves still attached.

I'm told the beets in the French markets have been baked rather than boiled, as many vegetables are. Baking is easy and it adds an especially sweet, nutty flavor to the beets.

If you have the oven on for a main dish casserole, save energy and bake the beets along with it. Baked Beets

Trim and wash whole beets, leaving on about 2 inches of stems. Place on aluminum foil on a cookie sheet or pie pan.

Bake in a preheated 300-degree F. oven about 1 hour for 1 1/2-inch beets, or until a fork pierces a beet easily. Beets cook best at a low temperature, but if cooking at 350 or 375 degrees F. add 1/4 inch water in pan and check so water doesn't evaporate.

Remove from oven, cool, and slip off skins and remaining tops. Serve reheated with butter and salt and pepper or with 1/4 cup sour cream and chopped parsley and dill. Or make a vinaigrette sauce for pickled beets or use a recipe for Harvard Beets.

For years many American cooks thought beets should never be peeled until after they're cooked because so much of the red color is lost. However, many people today have no qualms about peeling and grating this vegetable, and although it makes the fingers pink while peeling, it is a good way to prepare them for a change. Grated Stir-Fry Beets 4 medium beets 4 tablespoons butter Fresh lemon, lime, or orange juice 2 or 3 tablespoons water Salt and freshly ground pepper Chopped fresh dill or parsley

Wash, peel, and coarsely grate beets. In covered skillet, melt butter, add beets, stir to coat with butter, then sprinkle juice to taste.

Cover and cook over medium to low heat about 10 minutes checking to see that beets don't burn. Add water to prevent sticking.

Cook just until tender, then season and add additional citrus juice if desired. Garnish with dill or parsley.

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