Once you get beyond the surface, the most startling thing about a beet is its color. Perhaps that’s because it’s so unexpected, well-disguised by its rough and tumble exterior.
Cut into a bunch of beets and each one is different, much like a fingerprint, with lines and patterns so beautiful it makes you wonder if they have a soul.
Some are even surprisingly playful, such as the red-and-white, candy-striped Chioggia beet, an heirloom variety named for the town in which it was first cultivated in the 1800s, the island fishing village of Chioggia near the Lagoon of Venice in Italy.
Though the candy-stripe beet can be prepared much like any other beet, Chioggias are especially sweet and don’t bleed as much as conventional red beets, meaning you don’t have to worry about bright red beet juice staining your fingers, countertops or clothes.
Golden beets tend to be a bit sweeter, less earthy, with thinner skins and perhaps a bit more approachable if you’re just getting to know them.
The molecule geosmin is responsible for a beet’s earthy flavor and aroma. Its name is derived from Greek words meaning “earth” and “smell.” So when beets are described as “earthy,” it’s quite literal. Beets smell like dirt, but in a really good way.
Similarly, geosmin is responsible for the earthy aroma that permeates the air during a summer rainstorm and the scent of garden soil.
There are four main types of beets: the garden beet, whose root, leaves and stems are eaten as a vegetable; the white sugar beet, used to produce sugar; the mangel-wurzel, primarily used as feed for livestock; and the leaf vegetables Swiss chard and spinach, cultivated for their edible leaves. About 30 percent of the world’s sugar production comes from sugar beets – which brings me to the obvious: Beets are really sweet.
They’re also extremely rich in antioxidants called betalains, which not only give beets their gorgeous pigment but their super power. Research indicates that betalains help destroy cancer cells and have powerful anti-inflammatory properties. And these betalains are also present in their tops and stems, which is why it’s always a bonus to utilize them as well. Their tops are especially tasty in salads, soups and stews.
Beets offer a multitude of uses, and their inherently earthy, sweet flavor is a natural complement to many other ingredients. Deb Green – owner of Durkin’s Liquor Bar, Casper Fry and Madeleine’s Cafe and Patisserie – features locally grown beets a couple different ways on her menus. “We are so fortunate to be able to get a variety of beets from farms we partner with, and we add them to salads and entrees, giving them beautiful color and texture,” she said.
One of the seasonal salads on the Durkin’s menu, Roasted Golden Beets with Red Wine Poached Pears, includes pistachios and blue cheese. Pickled beets are also featured in a side offering. “We love to pickle beets because they look beautiful on our pickle plate,” Green said.
Like with most ingredients, roasting beets intensifies their flavor. The moisture from the beets evaporates and what remains is an even more concentrated sweet and earthy flavor. Use roasted beets in salads or on top of bruschetta lathered with warm goat cheese and drizzled with a balsamic glaze.
Giving beets a quick steam is an easy, fast way to cook them. Just boil them whole or halved, if large, and be especially careful not to overcook. Once boiled, run them under cool, running water and slip off their skins with your fingers over the sink. Drizzle with a little olive oil, balsamic and salt and pepper, for a simple side dish.
Braising beets in soups and stews is another good option. They love being paired with lentils or cabbage.
But my all-time, hands-down favorite way to prepare them is simply leaving them raw. Peel them and grate them like you would a carrot. Their sweet, earthy flavor adds delicious texture to grain bowls and salads, including their tops. The health benefits of raw beets are multiplied; too much cooking and heat affects the effectiveness of the betalains.
Juicing them is another way to incorporate them raw into your diet. Start off conservatively and gradually add more to taste. A delicious juice combination is beet-carrot-apple-ginger and fresh turmeric, perfect for fall.
Roasted Golden Beets with Poached Pears, Pistachios and Blue Cheese
From Deb Green of Durkin’s Liquor Bar, Casper Fry and Madeleine’s Cafe and Patisserie
For the beets:
3-4 golden beets
1 head garlic, cut in half
1 orange, cut in half
1 lemon, cut in half
4 sprigs thyme
1 teaspoon peppercorn
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
4 cups water
For the dressing:
2 large shallots
1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon each sugar and salt
For the pears:
2 Bosc pears
1 cup red wine
1/2 sprig rosemary
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
For the garnish:
1/2 cup toasted pistachios
1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Place beets, garlic, orange, lemon, thyme, spices and water in a baking dish, cover with foil and roast for 1 hour or until tender. Cool, peel and slice into ¼-inch thick slices.
Slice shallots into ¼-inch rings. Mix water, vinegar, salt and sugar and whisk until dissolved. Add shallots and let sit 24 hours.
Quarter and core pears. Place into a baking dish with wine, rosemary, sugar and salt. Poach in oven at 350 degrees for 45-55 minutes, or until just tender.
To plate, layer 4-5 slices of beets on a plate, top with 2 pieces poached pear, season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with pistachios and blue cheese.
Yield: about 6 servings
Earth Bowl with Raw Beets and Tops
4 cups hot cooked brown rice, quinoa or other whole grain
1 cup cubed extra-firm tofu (optional)
1 teaspoon soy sauce or liquid amino acid
4 cups fresh raw beets and carrots, grated (or substitute radish, kohlrabi or jicama for part)
2 cups packed leafy greens such as beet tops, kale, chard, spinach or arugula
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds, roasted or raw
1/4 cup fresh orange juice (half an orange)
1/4 cup nutritional yeast flakes
1/8 cup soy sauce or liquid amino acid
1/8 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup water
1-2 cloves garlic
1-2 teaspoons fresh ginger
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons chives or scallions, chopped
2 tablespoons pumpkin or sunflower seeds
Cook grain or rice according to package directions. Drizzle 1 teaspoon soy sauce over cubed tofu in a bowl and set aside, letting it marinate. Prep all veggies, peel and grate.
Make the sauce: place all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.
When grain is cooked, divide among 4 bowls. Top with chopped kale or other leafy greens. Arrange veggies and tofu over top. Drizzle with sauce.
Garnish with chopped chives (or scallions) and seeds.
Yield: 4 servings
3 pounds beets, scrubbed and cut into wedges not more than 3/4-inch thick. (If you prefer not to eat the peels, peel with a vegetable peeler before cutting.)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cracked pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
For the glaze:
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon maple syrup
For the garnish
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
1/4 cup crushed roasted pistachios
1 tablespoon orange zest (optional)
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Toss beets, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper in a bowl to coat well and and place on parchment-lined baking sheet and roast until fork tender, stirring every 15 minutes, about 45 minutes.
Place balsamic vinegar and maple syrup in a small pot on medium low heat, and reduce 20 minutes or until you have about 3 tablespoons
When beets are done, place in a serving dish and toss with balsamic glaze, pomegranate seeds and pistachios.
Garnish with orange zest, pistachios and pomegranate seeds
Yield: 6 servings
Beet Braised Lentils
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup diced red onion
1 cup diced carrot
1/2 cup diced celery
1 cup peeled and diced beet (one large beet, plus 2 more for juicing)
4 cloves garlic-rough chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 bay leaf
1 1/2 cups black caviar, beluga or Puy lentils (soaked overnight if possible)
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
Pepper, to taste
Splash balsamic vinegar
1 cup fresh beet juice (either purchase from a juice bar, or juice 2 extra large beets)
2-3 tablespoons browned butter (optional, but delicious)
Crumbled goat cheese (optional)
In a large heavy bottom pot or Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium high heat. Add onion, carrot, beets and celery, and saute for 5 minutes, until slightly softened. Turn heat to medium, add garlic, lentils and herbs, and sauté for 2 more minutes. Add stock and salt. Bring to a boil. Once boiling, cover with lid, and turn heat to low, maintaining a gentle simmer. Simmer for 30 minutes.
After 30 minutes, add the beet juice, taste for salt, add more if necessary, and continue simmering on low for 10-15 more minutes or until tender. If you feel there is too much liquid for your liking, keep the lid off and increase the heat, letting it reduce. (I like the braise slightly juicy, so I just replace the lid.)
Stir in a generous splash of balsamic vinegar and browned butter.
Serve in a bowl with crumbled goat cheese, or as a base for fish or chicken.
Yield: 6 servings
Beet Gnocchi with Beet Greens
For the gnocchi:
1 pound beets, plus 1 extra
1 cup whole milk ricotta
2 ounces grated romano (or parmesan) cheese
1 teaspoon salt
Generous pinch white pepper
Generous pinch nutmeg
2-2 1/2 cups flour plus more for dusting
For the greens:
1 tablespoon butter, plus 1 tablespoon olive oil.
2 shallots, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 bunches beet tops or chard, cut thinly into ribbons
1/4 cup pine nuts
Pinch each salt and pepper
1/4 cup fresh basil, cut into ribbons
Drizzle of balsamic vinegar (optional)
Grated romano, as desired (optional)
Boil beets in salted water, until fork tender, about 40 minutes (halve the big ones for faster cooking). Trim and slip off skins under cold running water, then pat dry with paper towels.
Place peeled beets in a food processor with the egg, and puree until smooth. (You should have at least 1 1/2 cups.) Add ricotta, romano, salt, pepper, nutmeg and white pepper. Pulse until just combined. Place beet mixture in a medium bowl.
Fold in flour and gently mix until combined. Add more if needed to create a tender, dough-like consistency. The less flour the better, and do not overmix, or it will taste gummy.
Divide the dough into 2 balls on a flour dusted piece of parchment. Sprinkle with more flour, and pat into 2 (2-inch thick) disks. Cover with a kitchen towel for 30 minutes to rest.
Roll out each disk into 3/4-inch thick rounds. Flour your knife, then slice the disk into 1/2-inch wide “ropes.”
Flour knife again and cut each rope into small, 1/2-inch pieces and place on a flour dusted sheet pan. Roll them on a gnocchi roller to get grooves, or use the end of a fork.
Heat salted water in a large pot and bring to a boil. Slice the remaining raw beet thinly, add to the water. (This will make your gnocchi especially deep in color; it’s optional, but pretty.) While the water is boiling, in a very large skillet, heat butter and oil over medium heat, add shallot and saute until tender and golden, about 4-5 minutes. Add garlic, saute 2 minutes, then add the beet tops or Swiss chard, and wilt. Add pine nuts, salt and pepper to taste.
Cook until tops are just wilted, another 2 minutes, then turn heat off. Move the wilted greens to a side plate. When the pot of water boils, remove the beets. Add splash of olive oil to the vibrant red water. Add gnocchi in batches, simmering gently until they begin to float, about 1-3 minutes.
Using a slotted spoon, place gnocchi into the skillet you just used and drizzle with a little more oil to keep them separated. Saute the gnocchi for a few minutes, or until they get slightly crispy, if you like.
Add the wilted greens back into the skillet, and gently toss to combine until warmed through. Add the the fresh basil, gently stir until warmed through, then serve immediately, dividing among bowls.
Top with optional toppings.
Note: You can make gnocchi ahead, up to the point where they are cut and generously dusted with flour. Store in the fridge until ready to boil.
The Seasonal Kitchen is a monthly feature. Local chef Sylvia Fountaine writes about seasonal foods, sharing recipes and a passion for local foods. Fountaine is a caterer and former co-owner of Mizuna restaurant. She writes about home cooking on her blog, Feasting at Home.