- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Please don’t dismiss beets as boring, red and bland. They come in a rainbow of colors, with flavors that vary with the hues.

The colors are new, but then, our taste in beet fashion has changed dramatically over the centuries. During Roman times, the beet tops or greens were prized, and the roots were tossed.

Historians suggest that these early beets probably were white or yellow and that red beets didn’t appear until the 17th century. Fast-forward a few hundred years, and we learn that the roots and leaves of the beet were both appreciated.

Moving forward again to more recent history, the color of beets was red, the size was humongous and the reputation dull, dull and dull. Suddenly, it’s today, and amazing Technicolor beets are hot.

Gardeners, chefs and home cooks are clamoring for beets in a palette of stunning colors and an array of sizes and shapes. In my own market, I have spotted beets that are deep purple, rosy red, sunset orange and golden yellow.

The coolest beet on the market has to be the Italian Chioggia, or candy-cane beet, with its alternating red and white concentric rings. Beets come in large, medium and small radish size (also called baby beets) and in elongated shapes like a carrot or parsnip. With such a selection, it’s no wonder beets are enjoying a resurgence in popularity.

One simple beet cooking technique has turned up my beet-eating habits quite a few notches. I tightly wrap the beets individually in squares of foil, then roast them in a 400-degree oven until tender when pierced with a skewer. This takes about 60 minutes, depending on size.

Because the beets are not cooked in boiling water, they will not be bloated, and the color and flavor will not have leached. On the contrary, roasted beets have a silken texture and a sweet, intense flavor, and the skins rub off as easily as from beets that have been boiled.

As an added bonus, roasted beets exude just a few teaspoons of luscious juice into the foil. Like jewels, these juices of concentrated beet essence are precious. When drizzled over the cooked beets, they add a sparkling intensity.

Different colored beets have slightly different tastes, but overall, most cooks agree that the darker the color, the earthier and more intense the flavor. Lightly colored beets have the same silken texture but a milder, sweeter taste than their boldly colored relatives.

If you are cooking an array of beets of different colors, don’t be tempted to boil them all together in one pot because everything will tint red, like the darkest beet.

One advantage to yellow or orange beets is that they won’t run red and stain your hands or turn potatoes, pasta, rice and each other a shocking hue of pink. That’s another reason why I prefer the foil-wrapped roasting method.

Like boiled or steamed beets, roasted beets can be sliced thickly or cubed and tossed with greens to make a luscious salad. A classic combination is beets with onion and mixed baby greens tossed with a vinaigrette and then topped with toasted walnuts, hazelnuts or pecans and a crown of crumbled blue cheese, feta cheese or aged goat cheese.

Variations on this beet salad have become classic, perhaps because the flavors of the separate ingredients are perfectly balanced with the sweetness of the roasted beets.

Sometimes beets in the market are sold with beautiful unblemished, tender greens attached. If you’re lucky enough to find beets that fresh, trim the greens and cook them separately. Or buy washed and bagged beet greens. Either way, these greens are delicious braised until tender, tossed with vinaigrette and served as a side dish.

True, the beet takes time to cook, but here is an idea for quick cooking that’s worth trying. Carefully peel the beets with a vegetable peeler and then use a hand-held grater or food-processor attachment to shred them coarsely. Melt butter or heat olive oil in a skillet and saute the beets until tender. They will cook in less than 5 minutes.

And so the beet goes on. Dull no more, beets come in a rainbow of colors and can be boiled, roasted or sauteed for soups, stews, salads, risottos and pasta. Or they can be enjoyed on their own.

Like the Romans, don’t forget to enjoy the greens. Remember, when you buy a bunch of beets, and their leafy greens are attached, you’re getting two dishes for the price of one.

Sauteed shredded beets with orange zest

1 bunch (4 or 5) medium beets with tops

1 tablespoon unsalted butter or extra-virgin olive oil

½ teaspoon grated orange zest

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon finely chopped Italian parsley, optional

Cut tops from beets, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for braising for another meal. Peel beets with a vegetable peeler, coarsely grate or shred using a box-style grater or the shredding blade of a food processor.

Melt butter or heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add shredded beets and saute, stirring, until evenly coated with butter, about 2 minutes. Add orange zest and continue to cook, stirring, until beets are tender, 2 to 3 minutes more. Sprinkle with salt to taste and a grinding of black pepper. Top with parsley, if desired, and serve at once.

Makes 2 to 3 servings.

Roasted beets and braised beet tops with cannellini beans

2 bunches medium beets with tops

1 medium-size red onion, cut into thin (1/4-inch) wedges

Water

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon dried oregano or 2 teaspoons fresh oregano leaves, minced

½ teaspoon minced garlic

½ teaspoon kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 15-ounce can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

Cut green tops from beets, leaving about ½ inch of stem attached. Set greens aside to be used for braised beet tops.

Wash beets and dry. Wrap each beet tightly in a square of foil and roast in preheated 400-degree oven until tender when pierced with a skewer, about 1 hour or more, depending on size of beets.

Cool, unwrap foil and rub off outside skin. Trim and discard stems and ends, and cut beets into ½-inch wedges. Set aside separately until ready to serve.

Strain any juices left in foil into a small bowl and reserve. Place onion wedges in a small bowl and cover with cold water. Add a handful of ice cubes and let stand until ready to use.

To make braised beet tops, wash beet tops in several changes of water, trim stems and coarsely chop leaves into 2-inch pieces. (There should be about 8 cups, or 1 pound, lightly packed.) Heat 2 cups water to boiling in a large, broad saucepan. Stir in beet greens and cook until wilted and tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain well, cool and then press lightly on greens with back of a spoon to remove excess moisture.

In a large bowl, whisk together olive oil, vinegar, reserved beet juices, oregano, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste until well blended. Measure out 1 tablespoon and add it to the beet wedges. Toss to combine.

Remove ice cubes and drain water from onion. Add onion to dressing along with cooked beet greens and beans. Toss gently to blend.

Spoon into a serving bowl and arrange beet wedges around edges and on top. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes 4 servings.

Roasted beet salad with toasted pecans and goat cheese

1 bunch (4 medium) beets with tops (see note)

½ cup broken pecans, walnuts or other nuts

5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 tablespoon sherry vinegar or mild fruit vinegar

½ teaspoon finely minced garlic

½ teaspoon kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

4 cups packed mixed baby salad greens

1/4 cup finely slivered sweet yellow onion

3 ounces very cold goat cheese, crumbled onto a plate and refrigerated until ready to serve

Cut green tops from beets, leaving about ½ inch of stem attached.

Set tops aside to braise and serve as a side dish at another meal, if desired. Wash beets and dry.

Wrap each tightly in a square of foil and roast in preheated 400-degree oven until tender when pierced with a skewer, about 1 hour or more, depending on size of beets. Cool, unwrap foil and rub off outside skin, trim stems and ends, and cut into ½-inch wedges. Set aside in a small bowl. Strain any juices left in foil over beet wedges.

While oven is still on, spread nuts in a small shallow pan and roast until lightly toasted, 7 to 10 minutes. (Watch carefully; nuts can burn quickly.) In large bowl, whisk together olive oil, vinegar, garlic, salt and pepper to taste until blended.

Add 1 tablespoon of dressing to beets in small bowl and toss to coat. Add salad greens and onion to large bowl and toss to coat with dressing. Divide greens among 4 salad plates.

Top with beets and drizzle with any reserved juices, add toasted nuts and goat cheese, dividing evenly.

Or serve in a large salad bowl, beginning with greens and topping with beets, reserved juices, nuts and goat cheese.

Makes 4 servings.

Note: Use all of one color beet or a variety of colors for this classic salad.

Marie Simmons is the author of many books, including “The Amazing World of Rice” (HarperCollins) and “The Good Egg,” recently released in paperback (Houghton Mifflin).


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