Beet it!

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

Mary Knox Merrill/The Christian Science Monitor
Deep Red: Pronto beets are grown at Nesenkeag Farm in Litchfield, N.H.

A few decades ago, I never had to think about making choices when buying one of my favorite vegetables, beets. There was just one kind: the large fist- or grapefruit-size, carmine-red beet roots. As root vegetables store well, beets are available year-round and their flavor and texture hardly change with long storage, unlike most other long-stored vegetables such as carrots.

Today you scan the root-vegetable shelf of a good market and you may find anywhere from three to half-a-dozen different kinds of beets. They come in white, gold, candy-stripes, and bunches of tiny baby ones with leaves attached, hardly larger than walnuts. Even the familiar red beets come in several variations.

The baby beets are particularly popular among restaurateurs and trendy chefs – they are very pretty in salads, mixed-vegetable side dishes, or simply placed next to the entrée, artistically arranged. As I am always eager to try new food items, I experimented with these trendy varieties and found them lacking in full flavor. To me, the standard, old-fashioned, large red roots beat all other beets, hands down. Only they offer a full, earthy, pleasingly sweet yet assertive, truly beety flavor.

Mediterranean roots

Like many foods, beets came from the east end of the Mediterranean region and locals originally picked wild ones for their tasty and colorful red leaves. Today we still grow beets for their greens for stews and salads, but most are grown for their roots, either for feeding livestock, feeding us, or to extract their sugar. They are easy and inexpensive to grow and thus their prices are always affordable.

Not only is this humble vegetable high in nutritional value, but beets are one of the sweetest of our vegetables. Table beets boast around 6 or 7 percent sugar, but varieties selected strictly to grow for their sugar contain 15 to 20 percent (for comparison, the sweetest of sweet onions contain about 15 percent sugar).

Most canned beets are stored either in water or in pickling solution. If you've never had a fresh beet, now is the time. Taste freshly cooked beets once, and you'll never buy the canned produce again.

The garden variety most commonly found at the market is called Big Red. Big Red's mother, a hybrid, was originally developed in a lab at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the 1950s. The immediate popularity among growers spread this hybrid throughout the world. However, there are dozens of other hybrids to choose from if you want to grow your own.

Beets dehydrate well and, during World War II, the US military brought tons of dried beets to the front-line kitchens – whether they were welcomed by the troops is another story.

Taming the beet

Many people hate beets, children perhaps most of all. Beets' flavor is simply too strong for their highly sensitive taste buds. (In kids' minds, beets may rival beef liver and Brussels sprouts on the scale of most hated foods.) In a way, mothers are blessed with their children's dislike since beets, by their powerful red pigment (called betalain) can leave nasty stains on clothing, table linen, and carpets.

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.

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.

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