The Beets Go On
When I was a little girl, my father’s taste in vegetables (virtually none) completely dictated what we ate as a family. This meant that except for tomatoes and corn on the cob in August, there were no fresh vegetables to be found on our table! Everything came from a can or a jar. There were only “French-cut” green beans (I’m sure no Frenchman would ever take credit for them), corn, and limp, gray spinach. Nothing to make a child stand up and cheer.
Oddly, however, my dad’s range stretched to pickled beets. Always the smooth-cut, never the crinkle, intensely purple and rich with vinegar, beets appeared quite frequently at our suppers. I loved them then, and I love their sophisticated cousins here in my London life: tiny new beets, left whole and pickled in a spicy, chili-flecked, aged balsamic vinegar. These make perfect cocktail snacks.
I prefer, though, to start with the raw version and invent all sorts of lovely ways to eat them. Happily, my husband and daughter share my passion. In fact, the beet was my child’s very first vegetable when she was five or so months old. I will never forget her glee in clutching the whole roasted beet, her hands, face, clothing and hair all gradually covered in the bright juice. Surprise: beet juice doesn’t stain! That was lucky, as she ate her way through many, many beets as a messy baby.
There is something vastly satisfying about eating a brightly-colored food. It’s healthy to put something so deeply vibrant into our bodies, and you can’t “beet” them for nutrition. One serving – about a whole medium-sized beet – contains over 10% of your daily fiber requirement, tons of vitamin C and plenty of something called betaine (say it out loud!), a substance that contributes massively to heart health and liver cleanliness, perfect for those of us who enjoy more than our fair share of sea salt and vodka!
Some people hesitate to eat beets because they think they are full of sugar, and they are, relatively speaking. Along with carrots, beets top the chart of sugary vegetables. In fact, beets are cultivated in some cultures to produce sugar. But should we worry too much about that? I feel that the sugar is offset by the punch of nutrition these vegetables contain, and certainly their inherent sweetness makes them appealing to most children.
I love beets for their versatility. You can eat them raw, either in a completely thrilling and colorful juice, or as a beautiful remoulade, a kind of alternative to traditional coleslaw, cut into matchsticks and served with a mustardy, lemony mayonnaise dressing.
Most frequently, I roast them and serve them simply with a good splash of rich balsamic vinegar. I know some recipes advise boiling beets, but the brilliant color of the cooking water afterwards means some of the nutrients are no longer in the beets. Why not wrap them unpeeled in foil, roast them in a hot oven for an hour or so, and open the fragrant package to find all the purple-red goodness still inside the beets?
By far, though, my favorite way to serve beets is in any number of luscious salads. The sweetness of scallops is a perfect friend for the flavor of beets, as is the salty goodness of bacon. You can go the simple route and just combine these three lovely tastes, or you can go whole hog and throw all my favorite foods at the eager beet – artichokes, avocados, hard-boiled eggs, rocket – for truly the Ultimate Salad.
As for soups, there is of course the traditional Russian borscht, based on shredded beets in stock, topped with sour cream. But I prefer my beet soup smooth and velvety, emulsified with a hand blender, with a good spoonful of crème fraiche mixed in, and sprinkled with black pepper or chives.
If you can find new, small beets, you will find that their leaves are small and new as well, and perfect for a mixed-green salad. Some people are very keen on sautéing the older beet leaves as you would chard or kale. These days, farmers are producing heirloom varieties of beets – striped yellow and orange, even white – but in my book, the extra expense of these varieties denies one of the lovely qualities of the vegetable: its affordability. They are pretty, but their taste is identical to the ordinary red beet. Save the fancy ones for a party!
No discussion of beets would be complete without addressing the British insistence on calling them by another name, as with eggplants (aubergines) and zucchini (courgettes). The British say “beetroot,” and if I slip up and say simply “beet,” I am met with a blank stare that reminds me we are indeed two people separated by a common language.
My theory on all this nomenclature dissent comes via Aristotle, who described the plant only in terms of its leaves, which were the primary purpose of the plant’s cultivation. Presumably, therefore, when the root itself began to be cultivated as a vegetable in its own right, it was deemed important to specify that the part of the plant being eaten was the root, not the leaves. America is such a young culture that we have, it would seem, less awareness of this development. Only the root penetrated the American consciousness, hence our simple word “beet.”
Whatever you call it, and however you prepare it, let’s embrace the humble beet for its happy color, vibrant flavor, versatility and cheer – all good qualities in its wintry season of short, gray days.
How do you like to prepare beets?
Photo Credit: John Curran & Avery Curran
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