I 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. A 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.
Beet 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.
As 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.