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If You Can't Beet 'Em

How to cook with beets - recipes and ideas for reluctant beet eaters and beet lovers alike.

Recipe: Curried Beet Chips

Recipe: Spicy Beet and Bacon Crostini

Recipe: Simple Roasted Beets

If you're new to this series, you can catch up at the Mostly Plants homepage, and check out Week 1 - Berry Special Plants to find out the inspiration behind the Mostly Plants name.

by Lynley Jones

Confessions of a Reluctant Beet Eater

Adventure Kitchen is a place to find lots of recipes from around the world (like this, this and this), using lots of interesting ingredients (like here and here), but before this week, no beets. Why? Because I've never been a fan. 

Until recently, the only beets I'd ever tasted were cold and pickled, and probably from a can. They were garishly red, and it's hard to describe the flavor - sweet, yes, but not pleasantly so. They smelled a little like dirt and tasted like... I don't know, just beet-y. 

Red beets with greens from my CSA this summer.

Over the last few years, I've noticed beets making appearances in non-pickled form, and, ever the adventurer, I would occasionally have a small nibble. They were sometimes served hot, sometimes salty or spicy, a few times in a salad, and surprisingly often, downright tasty. I began to think hey, maybe there's more to this bizarre red vegetable than I thought.

Beets Among Us

Beets, it seems, are as polarizing as candidates for president. Or maybe more so. I can't recall ever meeting someone who is undecided about beets. People either love them or hate them. They're either pro or con. A person's beet affiliation seems unwavering; there are no beet independents.

However, anti-beetnicks should take note: beets may be the next kale. Just this week, as I was reading and listening to my various foodie-information sources (I can't remember exactly where), the foodie experts were weighing in on the emergence of beets, observing that they are popping up in the most interesting places nowadays. 

You never know what you're going to get in a CSA, and in my CSA box this year, nearly every delivery has included beets. Perhaps the universe was trying to tell me something. I decided that for me, this was the time to figure this beet thing out.

Unless you plan on taking extreme measures - say, building a giant wall to keep them out, or enforcing some sort of complete beet-ban - it seems that beets are coming to all of us. In fact, they're already here. It might make more sense to learn to live with them. Maybe even invite them to dinner. You might even become friends.

Choosing and storing Beets

Golden beets with greens from the Montclair Farmers' Market

Beets come in a variety of colors, from the familiar red to golden to Chioggia (red and white striped inside!). Some are sweeter (red) than others (golden). When you see beets with the greens still attached, that's a good sign that they're very fresh. And - bonus - it's like getting two veggies in one! Use the greens to make Cremini Beet Greens, or you can add them to a salad. The stems are very mild flavored and can be chopped up and cooked right alongside the greens (but throw them in first, as they take a little longer to cook). Or, you can use the stems in smoothies, or freeze them to throw into the pot the next time you're making stock.

Fresh beet roots will be nearly rock hard. They soften as they age, so if they feel a bit soft, they are past their prime. As with all root vegetables, you should remove the greens right away to lengthen the life of the roots. Leaving an inch of so of stem when you cut off the greens will minimize color bleeding from the root. To store the greens, put them unwashed, leaf-end first into a plastic zip-top bag and leave the bag open in the refrigerator with the stems protruding. They'll last up to 2-3 days. 

Store the roots unwashed, loose, either in the vegetable drawer or just on a shelf in your refrigerator. They'll last for 2-4 weeks.

Down to Earth in a Red State

Beets contain geosmin, the same organic compound that is found in soil and gives dirt that familiar freshly-tilled aroma. So if you think you smell an earthy smell in beets, you are exactly right. The geosmin in beets is concentrated in the skin, so to minimize this aroma, scrub the beets well before cooking, and remove the skins before eating.

Beets are famously blood red, and the internet recommends that we consider wearing gloves to protect our hands from all that redness. As usual, I'm too lazy to follow the rules, so I have been handling beets glovelessly all summer, and have found that the red color washes off skin very quickly with a little soap and water. However, it is really, really red, and it lingers on my cutting board and countertop through a few washings. I don't have a fancy countertop, so this is fine with me; but if you have a nicer kitchen than I do (likely), and want to preserve the state of your kitchen (whatever color state that may be), you may want to take precautions to keep the beets on the cutting board or other washable surface while you're working with them. Also, you'll definitely want to wear an apron.

Cooking with Beets

Curried Beet Chips made from red and golden beets in the Adventure Kitchen.

In working with beets, I've noticed that beets taste their beet-iest when they're served cold. This seems counter-intuitive, since aroma and flavor are carried more strongly in warm foods. (This is why cold foods can sometimes taste bland, or require more seasoning than hot foods.) My theory to explain the situation with beets is that when the beets are hot, all the other flavor compounds in beets can shine through, so I experience a more complex (and to me, tastier) flavor profile. But when the beets are cold, the complexity recedes so "beet" remains out front as the main noticeable flavor. The bottom line for cooks is to choose whether to showcase that "beet" flavor by serving them cold or not.

When hot from the oven, I find that beets have a mild, potato-like flavor. They pair well with saltiness, with punchy additions like chiles or chives, and with bitter or tangy flavors like arugula, goat cheese and lemon. I used this approach to create this week's recipe for Spicy Beet and Bacon Crostini. In my recipe for Curried Beet Chips, I've fried them like potato chips. I'm not sure why, but after frying, even at room temperature, I don't notice the prominent beet flavor as I do with other cooking methods.

Vote For Inclusion

If after all this you're still nervous about beets, start with golden beets, which have a more moderate flavor; or use a combination. Your kitchen can definitely be a welcoming place for plants of all kinds, including beets.


Recipes

Curried Beet Chips

Like potato chips made out of beets! Slightly sweet, salty, and a little spicy with a hint of curry. Serve with Creamy Goat Cheese Dip.

Spicy Beet and Bacon Crostini

Toasted baguette slices slathered with mascarpone cheese and topped with crushed roasted beets, bacon and scallions.

Simple Roasted Beets

Simplest beets, delicious right from the oven.

Next Week:  Happy Apple Tart