by Amy Topel
While talking to my friend Karen the other day, I mentioned I was working on an article about beets and she quickly launched into a tirade about how much she detests them. I wasn’t surprised by her outburst; beets are one of those foods that people love to hate. And that’s too bad, because beets are delicious and quite nutritious. But the really great thing about beets is their color. When roasted and drizzled with olive oil, they have the deep rich hues of a ruby. I like to roast them together with carrots and serve them in a white bowl, the play of colors is really beautiful.
But the color is more than just captivating; beets are one of the only edible sources of the valuable family of pigments called betalains, which act as antioxidants fighting against free radical damage. Beets also provide potassium, vitamins A and C, magnesium, riboflavin, iron, copper, calcium and zinc.
While beets are pretty to look at, and good for you, betalain pigments do have a couple of negative aspects. First, they tint your hands, counter tops and cutting board red and they can stain your clothes. Beet-eaters the world over impersonate Lady Macbeth as they moan, “Out, damned spot!”. But you can avoid this familiar lament. Just take care when peeling or cutting raw beets; wear rubber gloves and an apron. The second negative of beet pigments is that they are water-soluble. This means they easily dissolve into the water that you cook the beets in. So if you boil peeled beets, their ruby red color is lost to the water and the beets you serve are washed out and dull-looking.
One solution is to simply roast the beets whole. Roasting is a dry heat cooking method: no water used, so no loss of water soluble pigments. Since they’re roasted whole, you don’t have to deal with getting your hands and equipment dirty by peeling or cutting them. To prepare beets for roasting, simply scrub the skin. Don’t peel them, or trim off the little tails on the bottom. Remove the greens, but leave an inch or two of the stems to ensure that the pigments stay inside the beet. Once the beets are cooked and cooled, simply pull the skins off using your fingers.
Betalain pigments also respond well to acidic ingredients. Many recipes call for beets to be cooked with a bit of vinegar, this accomplishes two things. The color, rather than turning a dull brick red remains a vibrant ruby red and the flavor of the vinegar compliments the sweetness of the beets.
When purchasing beets, think about how you plan to serve them. If you are making a beet slaw and plan to grate them, look for the largest ones you can find. If you will be roasting them whole, try to pick smaller beets that are all approximately the same size so they cook evenly. If you purchase beets with the greens attached, it is best to cut them off as soon as you get them home, and serve the greens within a few days. They are similar in flavor to Swiss chard and can be sautéed with garlic and olive oil. The beets themselves can be stored in the refrigerator loosely wrapped for a few weeks.
Beets can be eaten raw, steamed, boiled, juiced or roasted but no matter how you eat them, they are a delicious and healthy addition to your diet.
Using Raw Beets While beets are perfectly edible raw, this way of serving them is less common. My guess is that most cooks want to avoid the mess but it really isn’t that bad. In this recipe, the beets are shredded like cabbage and turned into a light slaw that can be served with grilled fish or tossed on top of a green salad and garnished with chickpeas.
Beet Slaw with Buttermilk Dressing
by Amy Topel
Serves 4-6 as a side dish
4 medium beets, approximately 1 pound
2 red apples
1 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon dry mustard
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Peel the beets, and slice into thin strips, or grate on the largest holes of a box grater. If using organic apples and carrots, wash and slice into thin strips or grate, otherwise, peel them first. Place the vegetables in a bowl and set aside. To make the dressing, whisk together the remaining ingredients, taste and adjust seasonings and dress the vegetables. Toss to coat and refrigerate for 15 minutes before serving.
Pickled beets are a welcome addition to almost any salad, they can also be served along side a sandwich or added to bean salads. These beets will last for a month in the refrigerator, stored in their pickling liquid. This recipe is a bit on the acidic side, if you prefer sweeter pickles, add 2 tablespoons of sugar.
Pickled Beets by Amy Topel
Yield: 1 quart
7 medium beets, approximately 2 pounds
1-1/2 cups sherry vinegar
2 cups apple juice or fresh cider
2 half-inch slices of an orange
in a sachet:
1 tablespoon pickling spice
1 bay leaf
4 black peppercorns
4 all spice berries
Peel the beets, and cut into wedges. Place in a pot with the pickling ingredients, bring to a simmer and cook over medium heat until the beets are tender when pierced with a knife. Remove from the heat, and allow them to cool in the liquid. Once cool, place in a glass jar, top with pickle liquid and refrigerate.
This is the easiest, and to me, the most delicious way to prepare beets. There is virtually no preparation, no clean up and the beets are sweet and delicious and can be used warm or cold in a variety of dishes. If you are cooking a lot of beets, they can be roasted in a roasting pan, covered with foil. If cooking just a few, roast them in a pouch made of aluminum foil. Roasted beets can be eaten warm right out of the oven dressed with a little olive oil and salt, added to a roasted vegetable mix, served cold with French lentils or served my favorite way, as a warm beet and mushroom salad.
Warm Roasted Beet and Portobello Salad
by Amy Topel
Serves 4 as an appetizer or two as an entrée
3 medium beets
3 Portobello mushroom caps
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
3.5 ounces goat cheese
10 ounces arugula or baby spinach
1/4 cup picked parsley leaves
1/4 cup toasted walnuts
2 shallots, sliced into thin rounds
3/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Pre-heat the oven to 400F. Scrub the beets and place on a large sheet of foil, sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and fold the sides up to make a sealed pouch. Wipe off the mushroom caps, place them on another large sheet of foil, sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, season with salt and pepper and fold the sides up to make a sealed pouch. Place both pouches in the oven. Bake the mushrooms for approximately 20 minutes, or until cooked through. Bake the beets for approximately 45 minutes, until they are tender when pierced with a knife.
Meanwhile, whisk together the balsamic vinegar, mustard and olive oil and set aside. When the beets and mushrooms are fully cooked, remove from the oven. Slice the mushrooms into strips. With a knife, remove the tops of the beets, slide the skins off with your hands. Slice the beets and toss with the warm mushrooms and goat cheese, cover with foil so they stay warm until you serve them.
In a salad bowl, toss together the arugula, walnuts, shallots, parsley and dressing. Place onto plates and top with the beet and mushroom mixture.