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Summer’s Glorious Beets

Those beautiful-hued varieties, the golden beet and the Chioggia, have helped bring beets into focus and to the table, which is good both for these roots and their edible tops, for beets can be a workhorse in the summer kitchen. They are always present in mine, steamed and ready to eat when the appetite strikes. I adore beets and I’m so glad when they’re back in season.

Of course you can find beets year around, but by “in season” I mean that they have their luxurious greens attached. You‘re really getting two vegetables in one, as the beet greens quickly cook to tenderness and can be used wherever you use chard or spinach, their relatives (all are members of the goosefoot family, Chenopodiaceae, which also includes quinoa). Steam or wilt the leaves in just a little water, then toss them with butter and lemon. Serve them on their own, or with the cooked beet roots.

It seems that people in large number profess a dislike for beets. Although I am a fan, I can understand this. Without being hot, spicy, prickly or otherwise difficult, beets manage to be sluggishly aggressive. It’s their density and utter earthiness that makes them so, for beets taste of soil. Plant breeders are working on eliminating this quality to in order to make beets more likeable, but I suspect they’ll be throwing out the baby with the bathwater to do that. There’s probably something inherently good and beneficial about that dirt---earthiness, and besides, there are other ways to make beets appealing for those who don't find them so already.

Beets are also full of sugars---think of sugar beets, from which granulated sugar is made---and these two qualities, the earthy and the sweet, oppose one another and confuse the mouth. At least I’m convinced this is so. I’ve long believed that acid in the form of citrus juices or good vinegars make a bridge between these elements and unite them in a way that makes beets very likeable. In years of teaching cooking classes I knew I could rely on the magic of acid to make beets more appealing to former beet-haters. And while a squeeze of lemon juice will do, citrus-tart salsa verdes based on 1 part lemon juice or vinegar and 3 or 4 parts olive oil, to taste, with herbs like anise hyssop, tarragon, and lots of super-fresh parsley or cilantro, also do wonders for beets. The pungency of goat cheese (and blue) works in a similar way to vinegars, which is one reason beets are now frequently paired with it. Sour cream and yogurt also claim some sharpness and, thus, do well with beets. The spoonful of sour cream stirred into a beet soup is a classic example of this easy pairing. Unlike some delicately flavored foods, like summer squash, green beans, and, lettuce, which benefit from lighter dressings or condiments, you can be a little rough with beets. They need little in the way of oil or fat, but they do need an assault of acidity and pungency.

Generally beets work best as salads, perhaps because salads invariably contain acids. Beets, grated and lavishly dressed, can make a very good raw salad (use the goldens and pink Chioggias for this), but cooked beets are perhaps more versatile. In order to have easy access to beets for salads, I've gotten into the habit of having cooked beets on hand. Simply steam the roots with their tails and an inch or so of the stems intact to keep, then refrigerate until you’re ready for them. Roasting takes far more time than steaming so I seldom use that method, although I know many people like to. Instead, I roast slices or quarters of already steamed and peeled beets, which takes about a third the time and much less oven heat. Salads are easy to improvise with beets. You can layer cooked sliced beets with scarlet pickled onions for more color and acid, or simply add a few drops of olive or walnut oil along with more drops of an aged red-wine vinegar, some flaky sea salt, and a handful of nutty arugula leaves. Consider using golden beets with a squeeze of lemon and olive oil, crumbled goat feta and fresh or dried oregano. Add some wrinkled sun-cured olives while you’re at it and if you have them, cook the beet greens and nestle the beets right into the dark lush leaves.

There’s no end to the fun you can have with these jewel-toned vegetables. They may not be as easy to love as tomatoes, but they’re here and will be all summer long, so if you don't already adore beets as I do, there will be plenty of fresh opportunities to give them a try.

Some kitchen tips

  • Red beets will temporarily stain hands and surfaces along with whatever foods they're mixed with, including other colored beets. When dressed with yogurt or sour cream, red beets produce a vivid magenta color. If you wish to minimize bleeding, dress beets just before serving or spoon dressing onto plated beets and keep red and other colored beets separate until just before serving.
  • The stems are not so pleasant to eat but you can use them in soup stocks.
  • When cooked, beets have a slick surface and fats just roll off,  so you don’t need to use very much oil or butter; they can take more acid, however.

Salsa VerdeCheck out this Salsa Verde recipe from Deborah Madison’s book, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, to use on beets—any color, any style. This salsa verde uses citrus zest and juice plus tarragon vinegar, but these are flavors and components you can play with. Dill, for example, is also a great match for beets.

Find more ways to enjoy beets!