I heart beets

Raw purple beets

Behold the beauty of the beet

I pulled a small bunch of dirty, purply-red globes from this week’s veg bag and a memory came flooding back:

A cold Friday night in Brooklyn … Me, my man and my good friend M around a small table … A bottle of red wine … A white plate of crimson beets, nestled with avocado chunks, splashed with balsamic.

That night at Frankie’s Spuntino, I fell in lust with the velvety splendor of beets.

When I mention beets to people – which I’m known to do, and which explains a lot about my limited social life – the reaction is often beet-ambivalence, but occasionally full-on beet-hate. I can’t claim to understand that (unless you have kidney stones, which, apparently, don’t go so well with beets). I strongly believe that people who do not like beets just haven’t met the right one yet. If you find the right ones, in season – June to October in much of Europe and the US – squeeze them (they should be firm), buy them, cook them lovingly, and remember where you got them so you can go back for more. And don’t be afraid to try something new, like pink and white striated chioggias or golden beets, which can be prepared the same way as the more recognizable red beets.

Beets and simple salad

Beets and a simple salad

Despite my current beet evangelism, my relationship with this root (known as beetroot in Europe and the UK) didn’t start as the torrid romance it is today. I first ate them pickled when I was a kid back in Toledo. They came sliced from a can, or intricately and uniformly cubed and shoveled into big tubs at mile-long salad bars, next to the cottage cheese. As I spooned them onto my plate, I always forgot to separate them from the cottage cheese to avoid it turning red.

During a whirlwind one-week business trip to the ‘stans (Kazahkstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan), I was served salads of cubed meats, potatoes and beets, some of them swimming in a luridly pink-tinted mayonnaise dressing. Next, it was the breakfast buffet in Riga, Latvia, where I ate pickled beets with pickled fish, and realized that fish for breakfast was something I’d been missing all my life.

It wasn’t until I moved to England that I first invited beets to come back to my place. This was when I discovered that a beet lover must be a patient lover – beets take a really long time to cook. I would cut off the greens (and save them to use just like chard or kale). Then scrub the beets, cover them in cold water and boil the crap out of them for more than an hour. There have been at least two beet-related saucepan fatalities in my house: I left the beets to boil and they cooked away all the water, scorching the vegetable and the pan. Sadly, I cannot recommend blackened–pan-boiled beets.

My grandma's trusty Joys of Jell-O cookbook, circa 1960s

My grandma's trusty Joys of Jell-O cookbook (circa 1960s) includes a recipe for beets, horseradish and celery suspended in lime gelatin - magnificent!

Fortunately, my mother-in-law loaned me her pressure cooker and told me it’s the only way to boil beets (that was several years ago, and I still have the pressure cooker, so ‘loan’ might not be the right word). Beets take only about 20 or 25 minutes in a pressure cooker. After they’ve cooled slightly, their skins slip off easily, and I place them in a bowl, slice them if they’re particularly big, and dress them with a bit of balsamic vinegar. They’ll keep for days in the fridge and taste great with just about anything, particularly pickled fish or smoked salmon, but also beef and lamb, or on a salad with feta cheese.

Gelatin vegetable masterpieces

If you don't fancy beets and gelatin, try one of these towering masterpieces from the Joys of Jell-O

My mother-in-law makes a gelatin mold with sliced beets, which is sweet and visually striking in its red-purple splendor. I don’t see many spectacular vegetable-infused gelatin molds these days – not like in the 1960s edition of the Joys of Jell-O, which I inherited from my late grandma. It includes a recipe for beet salad: horseradish, canned beets and celery suspended in a mound of wobbly purple Jello-O. (According to the back page, for just 50 cents and three Jell-O package fronts, I can get some decorative gelatin moulds to make my own!)

Today, I’m more likely to roast my beets than boil or gelatin-ize them. Again, as with any love affair, it takes time, but (unlike love affairs) most of it is unattended. Get small beets if you can, and avoid really large ones as they’re likely to be woody and bitter. Preheat the oven to around 375F, scrub the beets, and halve or quarter medium-sized ones. Rub with olive oil and sea salt, wrap in foil (or put in a small roasting dish with a lid and some water), and place in the oven for anywhere from 30 minutes (for really small beets) to 1.5 hours (you’ll need to check them now and then). They should be fork-tender when finished. Let them cool and remove the skins (or don’t – I find good quality, fresh, seasonal beets can taste fine with the skins on). Check here or here for other tips for roasting.

Roasted beets

Beets roasted in olive oil, coarse sea salt and my favourite enamel pan

This week I mixed my roasted beet quarters with feta cheese and ate them with a green salad and bowl of lentil soup. On another day I had them with crispy romaine lettuce and thin slices of smoked salmon. I know there are millions … okay, thousands of ways to prepare beets, and I’ve only just begun. (Send me your recipes if you have some!)

If you simply don’t have time for a prolonged love affair with beets, just grate them raw on top of a salad. Or go to Frankie’s and order the beet and avocado salad. Who knows … you might just get lucky.


4 Comments on “I heart beets”

  1. I’m with you sister – I’m a long-time beet lover! Delicious taste, and such a beautiful rich colour. I went and ran my choir on Monday straight after a full-on encounter. The conducting was spiced up by my technicolour hands. Want my recipe for beetroot and chocolate cake? Two of my fave edibles in one package….yum…

  2. aside from beetroot and yogurt cold soup, my favorite is raw beetroot carpaccio. though I have to say that after a summer of eating this stuff like daily, I need a break. see you soon!

    • Wendy says:

      I forgot about carpaccio!! One of my all-time favourites. I’ve never made it myself — despite a love of raw flesh, I’m a bit nervous about preparing it myself. But I had a really nice plate of carpaccio with beetroot at Jamie’s Italian in Oxford once … mmmm.

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