A Sweet and Hearty Year-Round Vegetable
Some of my happiest meals are ones that begin with the tips of my fingers dyed as if I've just voted in an election in a developing country. When a deep red color stains my hands as well as my cutting board it means I've been cooking beets.
Some people don't like beets, making it one of those dishes that I always vet before making it for guests. Usually the reaction is a swoon of "love them." But occasionally I get a rebuff that's close to, "they taste like dirt." It's hard to disagree because they do rather taste like dirt, but in an oddly delicious way.
Beets are a year-round vegetable. Even though many think of it as a winter vegetable, in fact its best season is June through October, when its leafy green top is at its most tender and delicious.
Despite having the highest sugar content of any vegetable, beets are low in calories. At about 35 calories per half cup, beets are rich in vitamins A and C, and also give us folates, calcium, iron and potassium. The most common beets are deep red, containing a dye called betacyanin which leaves a deep red stain on our fingers, kitchen towels, cutting boards, and anything else with which it comes in contact, including other ingredients.
But all beets are not red. Other varieties are the golden beet, the white beet, and the Chioggia or candy cane beet which has red and white concentric stripes. These less common varieties are usually more expensive and sometimes have a more subtle, delicate flavor than the red beet.
How to Buy and Store Beets
- Easiest to find at our produce markets are the medium-sized beets, about 3-inches in diameter. These are sold either with their green, leafy stems still attached or else trimmed and stored in bins, similar to potatoes. If you buy beets that have been trimmed of their greens, look for ones that still have a bit of the stem attached.
- Sometimes, especially at late summer and early fall greenmarkets, we can also find small, young beets, often called "baby beets," which are about 1.5 inches in diameter and usually sold with their leafy tops still attached. It can be easier to find the non-red varieties as baby beets.
- When selecting beets, look for ones which are very hard, round, smooth, and with a deep color and unblemished surface. The bottom of the beet will have a root that is called a "tap root." This will be slender, sometimes almost thread-like. This root can be trimmed before or after you cook your beets. Any leaves will wilt before the root shows sign of age, so even if beet greens are looking a bit aged, the beet itself may be absolutely fine.
- Once you get them home, store beets unwashed in the refrigerator where they can easily last for a week or longer. Before storing, cut off all but 1/2-inch of any green leafy tops that may have been attached. If you plan to cook and eat the beet greens trim them off and store separately, and remember that beet greens are more fragile than their roots so eat them sooner rather than later.
Cooking Beets and Beet Greens
- Beet greens are edible, full of nutrients, and many love them. Just wash the leaves and cook them as you would Swiss chard or kale, by steaming, cooking in boiling water, or sautéing with a little oil and garlic until limp.
- For the beets themselves -- regardless how you're going to eat them, they need to be cooked in advance. Beets can be steamed, microwaved, or even shredded and sautéed. But the most common way to cook them is either boiling or roasting.
- Don't bother peeling beets before cooking because the skin is very difficult to remove when the beets are raw, but they'll slip right off after they're cooked. Some recommend that you don't wash beets before cooking (their point is that you're going to remove the skin, and thus, any dirt) but because this is a root vegetable, I usually rinse off any excess debris or dirt before cooking. I just don't want noticeable dirt in my food at any stage of cooking.
- Try to cook beets of equal size so that they cook at the same pace. You can do this by either cutting larger beets into pieces of equal size (use a sharp, sturdy knife because beets are a beast to cut) or purchase similar sized ones right from the start.
Boiling Beets. Place beets in a pot of salted boiling water, lower the heat to simmer, cover and cook for about 45 minutes to an hour, or until when pieced with a knife, the beets are tender. Drain and peel while they're still hot.
Roasting Beets. This is the method I used, learned from Thomas Keller's masterful Bouchon cookbook:
- Pre-heat the oven to 375º F.
- Scrub the beets, removing any attached stems or leaves.
- Cut a large sheet of aluminum foil, twice the size of all your beets.
- Place the washed beets in the center of the foil. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons water, a generous pinch of salt and several grinds of black pepper.
- Wrap the foil around the beets, sealing it as if it were a package. Place the foil package on top of a rimmed sheet pan to protect your oven in the even the foil package leaks.
- Roast in the oven for 30 to 60 minutes, depending upon the size and age of the beets. Test with a knife for doneness.
- Remove from the oven. Open the package and let the steam escape and using a paper towel (or your fingers if you can handle the heat), rub off the skins. They should slip off easily.
- With a paring knife, remove any remaining marks or pieces of skin.
- lace the peeled beets in a bowl. If to be eaten immediately, add a little unsalted butter or a drizzle of your best olive oil, plus a pinch of sea salt.
- If you plan to use roasted beets in a salad, you can sprinkle red wine vinegar on the peeled beets while they are still warm, helping the beets absorb the vinegar.
Heaven to me is a bunch of late summer Greenmarket baby beets, roasted and eaten right out of the oven with a smear of good butter. But I also love them in a cold or hot borscht, added to a Salad with Goat Cheese and Arugula, as Beet Purée with an accent of orange juice, or diced and added along with their green leaves to risotto, dying the grains of Arborio rice a deep purple (see our link to a terrific recipe from Gourmet).
No matter how you finish them, beets will always have a hearty, sweet flavor that's close to the earth that produced them.