Beautiful Beets

Beet 6I used to think beets were a winter food. When I was growing up, beets were pickled or pressure-canned in the summer months and stored for winter use. My German mother thought every meal should have something either pickled or fermented. In spite of my mother’s best efforts, I’ve never acquired a taste for either. However, when my Irish grandmother used the canned beets in beef stew, I liked that.

But my serious enjoyment of beets didn’t come until I was an adult and experienced baby beet greens in a salad for the first time. An early spring mix of spinach, beet greens and watercress, drizzled with a raspberry vinaigrette, had me hooked. Then I discovered roasted baby beets with caramelized onions and tarragon, and my love affair with beets began. Last year after a nasty cold left me feeling totally run down, Tim at Zula, recommended their red juice made from beets, carrots, cucumber and ginger. So now, I can either eat or drink my beets. I even make a sandwich spread with roasted beets and garlic!

Beets come in different colors, white, gold, candy-striped and two shades of red. If you are concerned with consuming as many anti-oxidants as you can, go with the darkest red beets you can get. If you are not keen on the earthy flavor of red beets, try the gold or white. I like them all and choose the variety to match what I am serving. Beet 3A roasted beet salad gets some of each for the color and flavor contrast. A bed of sautéed beet greens, topped with sliced golden beets, has incredible eye-appeal in addition to the flavor contrast of the slightly bitter greens and the sweetness of the roasted golden beets.

With so many ways to serve beets, you can eat them regularly without boredom setting in. Here’s a quick and easy trick if you don’t have much time to cook: shred the beet root and sauté in butter or olive oil. It only takes a few minutes. Add your favorite herbs and voila! You have a beautiful side dish.

Don’t ignore the greens. Whether you are purchasing your beets from the farmers market or growing your own, you will want to separate the greens from the root bulb before storing them in your refrigerator. Otherwise, the greens will continue to draw their sustenance from the root. Since the root is no longer drawing its sustenance from the soil, the green will suck the moisture out of the bulb, leaving it soft and dehydrated. To use the greens, sauté or steam them like you would other greens. Top with your favorite vinaigrette and little feta. You can also add them to egg or pasta dishes.

For a great salad that works well for either a delicious lunch or as a side dish, roast and dice red beets. Add to cooked and cooled wild rice, along with finely diced green onions, tarragon and lemon juice. Add enough vanilla yogurt to make the salad as moist as you like it and then toss in some toasted hazelnuts or walnuts. I am partial to the roasted hazelnuts from Hazelnut Valley Farm in Lake City, MN. The salad will hold well in your refrigerator for up to a week (it usually disappears before the week is up).

A note on roasting beets, I find it easier to roast them whole, with the skin on. The time required to roast depends of the diameter of the beet, anywhere from 30 minutes for golf ball size to an hour and half for baseball size. After roasting and cooling, the skin slides off quite easily. Once roasted, you can store them for up to a week in your refrigerator to use as desired. Once you start doing this, you will be amazed at all the dishes you can add beets to. Soup, stews, pasta, salads, sandwiches. The possibilities are endless.  The trick is to have them ready!

Growing your own beets is not terribly difficult. Beets require a fair amount of space to get to the size of a baseball, so before you start planting make sure you have enough room to grow as many beets as you would like to use. Beets do best in a rich soil, high in organic matter.

Beets and Buckwheat 044Beet seed is rather interesting to look at, it is not round and smooth or long and straight. It is spherical, but with a rough, pocked surface. You will want to plant the seeds about an inch deep and about 2 inches apart, firming the soil over the top. Germination can be tricky. The seeds like to be kept moist, but not soggy. The soil temperature should be consistently between 55 and 60 degrees for the best results. Once your beet greens emerge, be careful not to over-water, as they are susceptible to damping off.

Beets and Buckwheat 019As the beets grow, you may find that you need to thin the plants to give the roots more space to develop. I wait until the roots are about an inch in diameter and then pull enough to give the rest a proper spacing. The thinnings end up in beet green fritattas or other savory dishes.

In about 2 months, your beets should be large enough to harvest. Pull them out and cut off the greens about an inch above the root. If you plan to store them in your refrigerator for any length of time (they will keep for months), gently wash off most of the dirt, taking care not to damage the skin. Allow the beets to air dry and then store in a container that allows a bit of air movement rather than in a plastic bag. Refrigerate until you want to use and then rewash to remove any remaining dirt. The bit of stem left on the beet may have gotten moldy, just cut it off. If you have the beets in your refrigerator long enough, they may grow new leaves, this is normal. Just cut off the leaves and use the root.

Palate Pleasing Parsnips

Palate Pleasing Parsnips

Parsnip 5You should see all the disbelieving, confused and bewildered looks I get when I say that parsnips are my favorite early spring vegetable.

Most people associate parsnips with fall, along with most other root vegetables. You can dig parsnips in the fall; if you like hard, starchy, and slightly bitter roots. Parsnips dug in the fall generally end up in stews or soups, often just as a filler vegetable, not because they adds any sparkling flavor. Quite honestly, I have never figured out why people bother with fall parsnips.

Freshly dug parsnips at the end of March.

Freshly dug parsnips at the end of March.

My grandfather was a parsnip lover, too. Every spring, he planted parsnips in an out-of-the-way spot so they could grow undisturbed and rest in the ground over the winter. As soon as the snow melted in the spring and the ground thawed enough to dig, he would go out to his parsnip patch and dig a bucketful. Back at the house, Grandma peeled enough for a feast, then she sliced and fried and filled plates so we could gorge ourselves on this amazing root that had turned sweet and mellow over the winter.

Fried and ready to eat!

Fried and ready to eat!

I have to confess that fried parsnips are still my favorite, although I love them other ways, too. Roasted parsnips are my second favorite. Thick chunks of parsnip, carrot, onion and garlic are tossed with olive oil and roasted at 350 degrees until they are tender. The length of time this takes varies with how thickly you cut the veggies and how many you’ve squeezed on the pan. To speed the process, cover the pan for the first 15 to 20 min. This holds the moisture in and partially steams the vegetables. Then uncover to finish roasting. Turn the veggies over several times throughout roasting so they brown on more than one side. Sprinkle with a little salt, drizzle with balsamic vinegar if you like, or if you have a sweet tooth like my grandpa, drizzle on a little honey or maple syrup. I just use salt, but do whatever suits your palate. No rules here!

Parsnip and carrot soup is also fantastic. Use your favorite carrot soup recipe and substitute parsnips for half the carrots. I like to simmer the parsnips and carrots in my homemade vegetable broth until tender. Then I puree the whole works and add salt, pepper and lots of ginger. Very invigorating on a cold, damp spring day.

Parsnips au gratin are awesome. There are many ways to prepare this, so I leave it to you to find the recipe that is most appealing to your taste buds. I use lots of cream, sauteed onions, thyme and cheese. A bit calorie-laden, but a wonderful indulgence with friends and a glass or two of wine.

Once you get started with spring harvested parsnips, you will become enamored and start thinking, “I could use parsnips with the last of my winter squash,” or “wouldn’t they be amazing with broiled fish?” I indulge two of my spring cravings at once by sauteing the parsnips in butter, and then adding nettles and serving it over wild rice.

If you would like to grow your own spring treat, you need to start early in the season, as soon in the spring as the ground can be worked. Make a shallow trench, about an inch deep. Thinly sow the seed in the trench, parsnips will get large if you have rich soil, so make sure they have plenty of room. Keep the soil moist until you see the leaves poking through the ground. Mulch heavily with leaves or grass clippings to keep the soil moist and reduce weeds. In the fall, make sure your row is marked so you can find it when the snow melts. You don’t need to cover the row or protect it in any way, unless marauding deer are a problem. They will dig down and take a big chomp off the top of the parsnips. Laying something (other than mulch) over the top of the parsnips usually ends this problem.

Here are what the parsnip leaves look like in early spring. When you see these leaves, you will want to dig up your parsnips!

Here are what the parsnip leaves look like in early spring. When you see these leaves, you will want to dig up your parsnips!

In the spring, go out to your patch, dig and eat! If you have planted more than you can consume in a couple of weeks, dig, wash, and store the rest in your refrigerator in a plastic bag or covered container. They will hold for 4 to 8 weeks.