Believe it – beets are better than you think

Published 1:52 am Saturday, May 29, 2010

Beets remind me of the grade school cafeteria and bad food, but actually beets can be really good in a salad and very healthy. I have never actually bought a can of beets, since I really never knew what do with them when I got home. My husband – you guessed it – brought in his first beets of the spring, and I decided to tackle the joys of cooking and eating beets. I think beets are best grown in the winter here as they can become tough in hot weather. You might think of trying the Italian variety, Chioggia, a bi-colored scarlet red with interior rings of reddish-pink and white. It also has a relative absence of bleeding.

Never should you buy those in a can in the store. Look for the fresh beets, even if you have to travel to a market to find them. If the leaves are attached, which they should be, look for healthy ones. They should be a vibrant green color with red veins. The leaves can be used in salads or pasta dishes, or simply wilted in a warm pan and drizzled with olive oil. When I pick lettuces for my spring salads, I usually pick a few small beet leaves along with small sorrel leaves, and arugula, and I like nasturtium leaves and flowers added as well, but we don’t have nasturtiums this year – crop failure.

Beets should feel hard and maybe even have a little dirt in their crevices—never a bad sign when buying vegetables. If the beets are large, hold them to see if they are heavy, an indication that they are solid, not pithy, and that the flesh is solid throughout.

Roasting is the best way to cook beets. Just wash them and put them on a baking sheet (adding no oil or fat) in a 300-degree oven and leave them for an hour or two, depending on their size. As they roast, their juices will end up as balls of sugar—almost like a piece of fruit. They become an ideal partner for honey, sugar, almonds, and fruits such as red currants and oranges.

Beets are not usually eaten raw, but you can grate them and squeeze out their juice, and add it to vegetable soup or chicken broth, as the Russians do to make one version of borscht. Apart from its color, beet juice adds a very pleasant sweetness.

Several of the restaurants I have eaten in recently have had a beet salad on the menu. So here is a good salad with beets from Giada De Laurentiis.

Beet and Goat Cheese Arugula Salad

Serves 4

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon honey

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

6 medium beets, cooked and quartered

6 cups fresh arugula (I really do think our home grown, reseeded arugula is spicier than that found in the grocery. And the perennial variety can be eaten all summer.)

½ cup walnuts, toasted, coarsely chopped

¼ cup dried cranberries or dried cherries

½ avocado, peeled, pitted, and cubed

3 ounces soft fresh goat cheese, coarsely crumbled

Line a baking sheet with foil. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Whisk the vinegar, shallots and honey in a medium bowl to blend. Gradually whisk in the oil. Season the vinaigrette, to taste, with salt and pepper. Toss the beets in a small bowl with enough dressing to coat. Place the beets on the prepared baking sheet and roast until the beets are slightly caramelized, stirring occasionally, about 12 minutes. Set aside and cool.

Toss the arugula, walnuts, and cranberries in a large bowl with enough vinaigrette to coat. Season the salad, to taste, with salt and pepper. Mound the salad atop four salad plates. Arrange the beets around the salad. Sprinkle with the avocado and goat cheese, and serve.

Beet Soup with Orange

From The Cook and the Gardener by Amanda Hesser

Serves 4

1 small knuckle ginger (about the size of a walnut)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 onion, chopped fine

1 clove garlic, crushed

2 bay leaves

4-5 sprigs thyme

3-4 sprigs flat-leafed parsley

4 large beets, stems and greens removed and reserved for another purpose (cut into 2-inch chunks)

Coarse or kosher salt

1 ½ tablespoons sugar, or more to taste

Juice and grated zest of 1 orange

½ cup Crème Fraîche

Peel the ginger and slice it across the grain. You should feel the knife cutting through the fibers, and the slices should be round or oval, with a lighter border. Rest the flat of a chef’s knife on top of two to three slices and pound on the flat of the knife to crush the slices and extract the flavorful juices. Chop the slices.

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan. Add the ginger, onion and garlic. Simmer over medium-low heat to soften, three to four minutes. Meanwhile, tie together the bay leaves, thyme and parsley with kitchen string and add them to the pan. Add the beets and 5 cups of water and increase the heat, bringing the soup to a boil. Skim often. Once it reaches a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 30-40 minutes, until the beets are tender.

Remove from the heat. Season to taste with salt and sugar. Discard the herbs and purée the soup in a food processor until silky smooth. You may need to do this in batches. Pour the soup into a bowl, and when it is all puréed, rectify the seasoning, adding more salt and sugar as necessary. Stir in the orange juice. The consistency should be that of split pea soup, not quite liquid and not quite porridge. Add more water if necessary. It’s fine for the soup to be thin as long as it’s properly seasoned. To thicken, continue simmering to reduce the amount of water. Let cool to room temperature and serve in bowls with a sprinkling of orange zest and a dollop of crème fraîche.

This recipe uses fresh beets that have been grated, saving you from roasting them. This recipe is from the Shepherd’s Garden Seeds catalog.

Beet Salad

Serves 4-6

6 large beets, peeled

1 bunch green onion, chopped

½ cup apple cider vinegar

2 tablespoons water

½ cup salad oil

Pinch of sugar

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper

Grate fresh beets on the finest grater you have – preferably one used to grate lemon peel.

If you are using a food processor, use the disc with the smallest holes. Place grated beets in a bowl. Mix the remaining ingredients until blended and pour over beets. Toss and marinate in refrigerator for several hours before serving. For an interesting variation, substitute grated carrots and/or grated radishes for one-third of the beets.