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Sweet Beets

These colorful root vegetables are one of winter's treasures

Fine Cooking Issue 90
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Beets are the jewels of the underground garden. Full of sweetness and saturated color, these beautiful roots become tender and full-flavored when cooked—an ideal ingredient for salads, side dishes, and soups. And although we think of beets mainly as root vegetables, in truth, the whole plant is edible. The greens are delicious: You can use the small, tender inner leaves raw in salads and steam, sauté, or braise the larger leaves as you would Swiss chard or kale.

Beets are available almost year-round, but the best time for freshly harvested beets is summer straight through fall and early winter. While the roots are great keepers, the green tops don’t last very long, which is why you sometimes see beets sold without them. If your beet greens look good when you buy them, use them as soon as possible. Store both roots and leaves in a loosely closed plastic bag in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator.

Beets’ sweet earthiness is a perfect match for the vibrant tanginess of oranges, as in the dressing recipe at far right. Many herbs also pair well with beets, including dill, chives, chervil, mint, and tarragon. And when looking for other vegetable partners, think coolseason greens like spinach, endive, escarole, and arugula, but also onions, shallots, and scallions. I like to pair beets with tangy cheeses that act as a foil to their sweetness: Goat cheese, feta, and blue cheese are among my favorites. And I love the way beets’ mellow sweetness blends with the robust, zesty flavors of ginger, mustard, capers, and horseradish.

Beets’ true colors

While most of us are familiar with red-purple beets, there are also golden and striped beets. If you look hard enough, you may even find white ones.

Red beets are the most commonly available. They have deep-maroon flesh with ring patterns that suggest wood grain. Their flavor is rich and sweet, with a slight earthiness and mineral quality. The Forona and Cylindra varieties have elongated, cylindrical roots that produce even slices when cut crosswise.

Golden beets have orange skin, deep-golden flesh, and a full, sweet flavor that is milder and less earthy than that of red beets. The stems and leaves carry a golden color, too.

Chioggia beets, also known as Candy Cane, are an Italian heirloom variety whose flesh has alternating concentric circles of red and white. When you cut one crosswise, it looks like a bull’s eye. The colors, alas, tend to blend together during cooking.

How to cook a beet

Because beets are so dense, they take a relatively long time to cook. They can be boiled, steamed (best for small beets), pressure-cooked (ideal for getting them done in a hurry), and roasted. In my opinion, roasting brings out the best in beets, caramelizing the sugars and deepening their flavor.
To retain their juices, I like to leave beets whole and unpeeled when I’m boiling or steaming them, but for roasting, I peel and cut them first. This lets every piece of beet get nice and browned, and it keeps all the messy work up front. Plus, they roast much faster without skins, and you don’t have to wait for the beets to cool before you peel them. No matter what method you use, cooked beets keep at least a week in the fridge.

Bright beet salads

There’s no end to the beet salads you can make. Here are a few ideas, good with beets cooked any way.

  • Toss cooked beets in a mustardy vinaigrette made with olive oil, red wine vinegar, a dollop of Dijon mustard, salt, and pepper. Serve on a bed of young beet greens or mesclun greens.
  • Mix cooked cubed beets and young greens with a simple vinaigrette thickened with puréed roasted garlic, and serve with goat-cheese toasts on the side.
  • Cut up cooked beets and toss in a vinaigrette made with walnut or hazelnut oil and sherry vinegar. Arrange over endive or frisée, scatter with toasted nuts (the same kind as the oil you use), and serve with a big slice of creamy Gorgonzola.
  • Marinate warm beets in a little white wine or rice vinegar. When cool, toss with lots of chopped dill and arrange over spinach leaves. Drizzle with olive oil and garnish with ultrathin slices of red onion.

Or try them in soups & sauces

  • Make a hot-pink vinaigrette that’s as vibrant on the tongue as it is to the eye by puréeing a steamed or roasted beet with olive oil, vinegar, a clove or two of garlic, salt, pepper, and a little sugar.
  • Cook up a beet pasta sauce of sautéed beet greens and garlic, cubed cooked beets, and fresh orange and lime juice, seasoned with salt and pepper. Toss with hot fettucine and garnish with toasted pine nuts and crumbled feta.
  • Roast beets with other root vegetables such as carrots, parsnips, potatoes, onions, and turnips. Toss with olive oil and a fragrant medley of cinnamon, cumin, coriander, and paprika, spiked with a pinch of cayenne. Serve over couscous with a thin sauce of minted yogurt.
  • Blend a beautiful pink borscht to serve cold. Boil or pressure-cook beets, saving the cooking liquid. Cut the beets into chunks and purée in a blender, using a little cooking liquid to thin, as necessary. Stir in more of the liquid to get a nice soup consistency. Season with salt, pepper, and fresh lemon juice. Stir in a generous spoonful of sour cream, chopped parsley, and chopped dill, chives, or mint. Serve chilled, with more sour cream.

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