Tough to beet


Beets may be “cheap as borscht,” but they are also delicious, versatile, and a healthful addition to any meal.

We know that our European ancestors used beets, both inexpensive and accessible, as the base for borscht, a soup made hearty with the addition of other inexpensive ingredients such as cabbage, potatoes, and beans. A pot of borscht could feed a family for a pittance.

We are less sure about whether our grandmothers knew how healthy the beets were made that borscht. Beets are rich in calcium, iron, magnesium, and potassium and provide a healthy dose of vitamins B and C, beta-carotene, and folic acid.

Researchers also tout the medicinal qualities of beets. They have been found to regulate blood pressure, aid in digestion, protect us from certain cancers, and even get rid of dandruff. Yes, dandruff. Add to that bounty their wonderful earthy flavor and the myriad ways they can be prepared, and you have a real bargain in every sense of the word.

The beet is a root vegetable available year-round; however, beets harvested from June through October are the sweetest and the most tender. They come in a variety of colors and retain their lovely hues even after being cooked. They have the highest sugar content of any vegetable but are low in both calories and fat.

Though many people discard the beet greens, those greens, like the greens of other root vegetables, such as carrots, parsnips, and rutabagas, are edible and pack a healthy wallop of vitamins. It is important to remember that while the root (the actual beet) can be refrigerated for weeks without loss of quality, the greens are more perishable and must be used within a couple of days.

To prepare greens, cut them two inches above the beets. Rinse well to dislodge grit and dirt. The greens can be eaten raw alone or in combination with your favorite salad greens. To cook my beet greens, I quickly saut é them in a pan with a bit of olive oil until crisp or with olive oil and a teaspoon or two of water or vegetable broth until just wilted. Lightly seasoned and coarsely chopped, the greens make a delicious and attractive bed for my roasted beets.

The beets themselves can also be served either raw or cooked. If served raw, the beets should be rinsed and peeled. While beets don’t make good fabric dyes, they will turn your hands red, so wear gloves when peeling them. Once peeled, raw beets can be grated or julienned, sliced thin, or juiced. Many nutritionists believe that maximum health benefits come from eating your beets raw.

If you prefer cooked beets, there are a variety ways to prepare them and even more ways to serve them. Whether roasted, steamed, or boiled, cooked beets can be used in cakes (such as chef Charlie Trotter’s magnificent flourless chocolate beet cake), in soups and salads. They can be pickled, marinated, candied, and deep-fried. Because of their sweetness, the flavor of beets is magnified when they are combined with foods that are just a bit spicy. This explains why beets in a bittersweet chocolate cake batter, or beets that are pickled or tossed with different vinegars, are so delicious.

To boil them, set the rinsed, unpeeled beets in a pot of unsalted boiling water and boil for 30 to 40 minutes, or until fork-tender. To steam beets, fill a deep medium-sized pan about halfway with water and bring to a boil. Insert a vegetable steamer, add rinsed, unpeeled beets, cover pan, and steam for 30-40 minutes until fork-tender. Steaming beets is a great way to preserve most of their vitamins.

To roast beets, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Wrap each rinsed and unpeeled beet in aluminum foil and set beets in a pan or place them directly on an oven rack. Roast the beets for about 45 minutes or until they are fork tender.

Allow cooked beets to cool before peeling. To peel, simply slip the skins off of the beets and discard. The beets are now ready to be sliced, diced, or mashed. They may also be placed in an airtight container and refrigerated for a few days before using.

I’ve included my recipe for our family’s favorite salad. Though my love of kitchen improvisation causes my husband Mike to caution our kids to enjoy that evening’s meal because it most likely will never reappear, my beet salad is one dish that I continue to make over and over again Hope you enjoy it as much as we do.

Margi’s Beet Salad

1- 2 bunches beets, with greens, color or colors of your choice

1 clove garlic finely minced plus 6 whole, unpeeled garlic cloves

Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes, optional

Olive oil for pan and for drizzling plus 2-3 tbsp. for vinaigrette

1 1/2 tsp. dried oregano

Coarse kosher salt

6-8 ounces fresh arugula, rinsed and spun dry

2 tbsp. finely chopped shallot

2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1/4-1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped

4 ounces mild goat cheese or feta cheese, crumbled

Cut beet greens two-inches above beets. Rinse greens thoroughly in water and pat dry with a paper towel. Coarsely chop stems and leaves. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Gently scrub unpeeled beets under cold water to remove dirt. Pat beets dry with a paper towel. Place beets in a single layer in a shallow, oven-safe dish or pan. Scatter whole garlic cloves among the beets. Drizzle beets with olive oil and sprinkle with oregano and 1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt.

Cover dish tightly with a double layer of aluminum foil. Bake beets in preheated oven for 45-55 minutes, or until just tender when poked with a fork.

While beets are roasting, heat 2 teaspoons olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add minced garlic and pepper flakes, if using. Saut é until softened but not brown. Add chopped greens and stems. Stir and continue to cook over low heat, adding a teaspoon of water or broth if pan gets too dry. When greens are wilted, about 5 minutes, remove the pan from the heat and set aside.

Remove baking pan from oven and place on a cooling rack for 5 minutes. Gradually lift foil wrap to release steam and then remove. Let beets cool for an additional 15 minutes, uncovered, until cool enough to handle.

Using rubber or latex gloves, slip skin off of each beet and discard. Cut each beet into 1-inch cubes and place on a plate. Reserve oil and garlic in baking dish.

Using your hands, squeeze each garlic clove out of its skin and place it back into baking dish with roasting oil. Smash garlic cloves with a fork. Stir chopped shallot and 2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar into garlic-oil mixture. Whisk in 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Add more oil as needed to emulsify dressing. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Set aside.

Arrange arugula on a large platter. Drizzle 1-2 tablespoons of dressing over greens and toss. Scatter beet greens over arugula and spoon cubed beets on top. Crumble goat cheese or feta cheese over beets and scatter toasted walnuts over cheese. Drizzle salad with some of the remaining dressing and top with fresh ground black pepper to your liking.

Makes 4-6 large servings.

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of two. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is currently working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected].