Food & Drink Meatless in Steer City

Up Beet - What's not to love about the crown jewel of root vegetables?

There are those who love cooked beet, crimson and sweet, and there are those who find its soft consistency suspect. The latter are the same people who get nervous around cooked carrots and think green beans are flat, watery strings that come out of a can. It's not their fault; someone in their life trained them to hate cooked vegetables by boiling all that was good out of them. To know a fresh, well-prepared beet is to love it.

Beets are not only a good source of folate, potassium, iron, and vitamin C, but also free-radical fighters, high in anti-oxidants. A topped beet root will last up to one month in the refrigerator. Greens should be stored in a separate bag and eaten within three to five days.

Beets are at their best from June to October and, though topped beets will last up to six months in a dry cellar, they have the most flavor when fresh. As a root vegetable, beets may seem hearty and hale, but they are actually rather thin-skinned and the slightest bruise or cut will cause them to "bleed" flavor and nutrients when cooked. Look for a small- to medium-sized beet in good condition with a firm, regular root and short, bright green tops. If you intend to eat the tops, avoid long, leafy greens - they may look appetizing, with their wide carnelian veins, but they will be tough and bitter. Baby beets are so tender and sweet they can be cooked and eaten unpeeled with the tops attached.

Basic pickled beets

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut the greens off the beets, leaving a half-inch of stalk*, and put the beets in a baking dish with a splash of water. Cover with tinfoil and cook for 45 minutes to an hour or until the beets can easily be pierced through with a knife. When the beets are just cool enough to touch, gently slide off the skins. Sprinkle with vinegar, salt, and pepper.

Pickled beets add sweetness and color to green salads and pair very well with mild goat cheeses.

*Reserve the beet greens for future use. Young, tender greens can be added raw to a salad. Older greens must be cooked and can be steamed or sauteed in the same fashion as chard and spinach.

That said, some folks let beets grow old in their gardens, simply because the greens are so pretty. And, even if you loath the flavor of beets, you can't deny the beauty of their root. The wine-red beet is the most common table beet and has the strongest flavor - earthy, sweet, and sometimes slightly bitter - but Whole Foods also carries gold, and baby beets and Chiogga are available at Central Market. Sometimes referred to as candy-cane beets, Chiogga have a mellow, slightly peppery flavor and are as decorative as their jewel-toned cousins: Sliced, they resemble a bulls-eye of red and white.

Like many leafy root vegetables, beets sometimes arrive home less than lovely, with slimy, sandy greens and dirty roots. As delicate as they are, beets must not be scrubbed; give them a gentle rub-down in cool water and save the loofah for your elbows.

Now you are ready to cook. There are dozens of recipes for beets - from beet risotto and beet horseradish to beet salad and borscht, a rich Russian soup - but pickled beets are perhaps the most common and the simplest to prepare. An undercooked beet is bitter and an overcooked beet is mushy; don't be afraid to jab your beet several times during cooking to see how it is coming along.

By Susan Pagani

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