At family farmstands, summer is in a lull between the spring crop and the summer rush. Beets, broccoli, spinach, lettuces, radishes, scallions, peas and strawberries are dwindling. Neon yellow zucchini flowers will unfurl any day now. But for two weeks, some farmers close down the farm stand.
“Other stands will buy produce to cover the two weeks between the spring and summer crops. Since we only sell what we grow, it makes sense to shut down,” one local farmer says. So customers are eyeing the dark green chard and romaine lettuce, fingering the snow peas and beets. The English pea pods are swollen nearly to bursting.
But it’s the beets that grab attention. Understated, unloved, you won’t find many chefs proclaiming that beets are a favorite food on their menu. Perhaps too many people get to know beets as a canned ingredient alongside an indifferent salad bar. Beets command respect due to their color and that’s the problem. The inky red juice finds a way to seep into mashed potatoes or green beans, ruining everything.
These beets look too beautiful to pass up. Customers are smoothing the silky red-veined leaves. The beets are about the size of ping-pong balls, freshly pulled from beds with wisps of dirt still clinging to their roots. Steam them, then douse the hot beets with an olive oil balsamic vinaigrette and fresh ginger. Proportions are up to the cook.
Beets are from the goosefoot family, the same family that brings us spinach. So beets tolerate some shade, but do love sun, rich soil and plenty of water. They can be sown early along with English peas, on St. Patrick’s Day, which makes them particularly popular in the cold climate of northern Colorado. Harvested in June, they’ll have grown perfectly sized to be tender and sweet. The greens are prized as a substitute for chard and when the young greens are only a few inches high, you’ll find a few nestled in a mesclun salad.
You may associate beets with Russian, German or Polish fare. Those old European recipes are based on Medieval flavors, before spice routes varied European tastes. Honey and vinegar appeared as the dominant robust flavoring. Beets take to Asian flavors beautifully, too, and fresh ginger is one of the most companionable. Like the traditional German recipes, it’s the sweet and sour Asian combinations that work so well. A simple dressing of honey and rice vinegar make a beet’s wardrobe complete.
The intensity of strong flavor in a beet insists on an equally strong complement. Matchstick steamed beets pair with Gorgonzola or American blue cheese. Garlic is a close friend to a beet and olive oil is the choice for vinaigrette.
These days you’ll find red and white-ringed beets, almost a peppermint look, called Chioggia and golden beets the color of carrots. Those beets may thrill children who squeal with dismay when beet juice runs into their neighboring foods. Try mounding beet and carrot salad in a lettuce cup or endive spear to contain the juices. Bright red beets against a green leaf make a stunning contrast.
- 1 pound of beets, any color
- 4 garlic cloves sliced
- fresh ginger knob, enough for a teaspoon grated
- Tbs. olive oil
- Tbs. water
- kosher salt and pepper to taste.
Top and peel beets; cut into halves if small, quarters if as large as a tennis ball. Place beets on a piece of aluminum foil, add oil, water, garlic, salt, pepper and ginger; fold foil into a pouch. Put the beets in their foil case inside a baking dish. Roast at 350 degrees for about one hour or until the beets are soft. Check by piercing with a knife, it should pierce easily all the way through the beet. Serves four.
- Follow all the directions above except leave out the ginger and garlic. Instead, add one teaspoon of balsamic vinegar and one teaspoon of honey.
- 3 raw beets topped, peeled and grated
- 3 raw carrots, peeled and grated
Combine the two slaws and add the dressing. Or toss the slaw separately so that the carrot and beet retain color, or only lightly so that the two colors remain distinctive.
For the dressing:
- 3 Tbs. olive oil.
- 1 Tbs. rice vinegar.
- 1 teas. honey
- Salt and pepper to taste
SAUTÉ OF BEETS
You may want to cook both red and orange beets for this recipe. If so, cook them separately to keep a vivid color difference.
- 4 red beets, cut into matchstick sizes
- 4 orange beets, cut into matchstick sizes
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- 2 slices from a knob of fresh ginger, about the size of a quarter, minced
- 4 Tbs. of canola oil, or any oil that can reach a high cooking temperature
- 2 teas. honey
- 4 Tbs. orange juice
- salt and pepper to taste
Top and peel beets. Cut into matchsticks. Sauté garlic and ginger in hot oil, Add matchstick beets and sauté until tender. Add honey and orange juice and stir-in quickly.
RAW BEETS MARINATED IN ORANGE JUICE
This simple recipe is unusual, but delicious. Beets can be wonderful as raw vegetables served with a green salad. Grating them allows the sweet and sour flavor to come through.
- 4 medium beets, peeled and grated
- 1 Tb. honey
- 1 Tb. white wine or rice vinegar
- 1 cup orange juice
- salt and pepper to taste
Combine all and allow to marinate for an hour. To serve, lift the grated beets with a slotted spoon out of the marinade and serve in lettuce or endive cups. Serves four.