Of beets and borscht
Then there’s the humble beet. Until recently, beets were mostly just a cool/cold weather staple in American homes, usually boiled, canned or pickled, rarely appearing on restaurant menus. In my family we ate beets from midsummer on, because we grew them for ourselves and to sell. They were served sliced and buttered or pickled, period. As a child, I thought buttered beets were OK, but detested my grandmother’s pickled beets. I liked cold cooked beets best and ate them whole, like apples. But I had a grudge against beets: the seed was sown down long, seemingly endless rows; when the sprouts were a couple inches long they had to be thinned by hand, on one’s knees, to provide enough space for the roots to develop. It was my most hated garden task. These days, those sprouts, called beet micro-greens, are used by chefs for garnishing. They (and other micro-greens) fetch what some think are astronomical prices. But I know how much labor they take, and laugh when I think of the thousands of dollars’ worth I tossed aside to shrivel and die.
These days, chefs and “foodies” are rediscovering beets – finding new, delectable uses and cooking techniques for them, and old/new varieties.
What most Americans call beets are called beetroots in the U.K. and Commonwealth countries. They’re part of a family, Beta vulgaris, that includes white sugar beets, Swiss chard (called silverbeet in the U.K., etc.) and mangel-wurzel, a European beet grown for fodder that weighs up to 100 pounds.
Like Swiss chard, beet greens and stems are nutritious and delicious, but that’s another column. Beets (the roots) are now widely available in colors besides red: white, golden and even one, Chioggia (kee-OH-gee-uh) with red and white-striped rings (when cooked the stripes disappear, and they turn pink).
Even though beets are sweet, they contain only modest amounts of calories and carbohydrates, except for sugar beets, which aren’t eaten as a vegetable. Garden beets are exceptionally nutritious and considered “heart-healthy” – containing antioxidants that lower cholesterol, have anti-aging effects and provide protection against coronary artery disease and strokes.
I’ve had different-colored beets that were precisely cut and fitted to make a stunningly beautiful mosaic, and a red beet juice reduction sauce topped with sautéed salmon in upscale restaurants. ber-chef Mario Batali fills ravioli with ricotta and mashed beets, dressing them with poppyseeds, butter and grated cheese. It’s a lovely dish because the deep-pink filling shows through the thin dough. When my children were young, I’d add c. puréed red beets to pasta dough and cut the rolled-out dough with a heart-shaped cutter for Valentine’s Day raviolis.
Beets are especially good for salads, on a lettuce bed or alone. The possibilities are endless; here are three suggestions:
Toss cubed red beets with thick yoghurt seasoned with minced garlic and lemon juice, a traditional Greek medze (appetizer).
Alternate red and golden beet slices with fresh mozzarella discs, drizzle with good olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Optional garnish of fresh basil shreds.
Beets and oranges are an especially felicitous pairing. Combine beets with seedless orange sections or round oranges slices. Mix in thinly sliced fennel bulb for some crunch, optional. Use red beets with regular oranges, or reverse colors by using golden beets and blood oranges, now in season. Dress with sweet-sour vinaigrette and sprinkle with poppy seeds and snipped fennel fronds, if fennel is added to the mixture.
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Basic instructions for cooking beets
Rather than boiling beets, most cooks prefer baking them: it’s easier, there’s less mess and they retain more flavor and nutrition.
Preheat the oven to 375.
If the beets have stems and leaves, cut them off leaving about two inches of stems attached. Scrub well. Wrap in a foil packet in one layer, sealing the foil tightly. If the beets are in several sizes, make individual packets, or group them by size. If the beets are different colors and include red beets, wrap the colors separately so the red beets won’t stain the others. Alternatively, the beets can be placed on a rimmed baking sheet or a baking dish large enough to hold them in one layer (separated, if necessary, as above). Cover the baking sheet or dish tightly with foil.
Bake until the beets can be pierced easily with a knife. Baking time will depend on their size(s); small beets can take as little as 30 minutes, larger beets take 40-60 minutes or more.
When the beets are completely tender, open the foil and let them stand until they’ve cooled enough to handle, then rub the skins off; they will slip off easily, as will the top stem area. Use plastic gloves to avoid staining your hands.
Variation: Add a teaspoon or so of whole spices to the foil packets for scented beets. Possibilities include fennel seeds, star anise (4 pods), a cinnamon stick, anise seeds, dill seeds and coriander seeds.
Aside from pickling, the best-known beet preparation has long been borscht, a soup that originated in Eastern Europe and Russia. It’s particularly associated with Ashkenazi Jews (Jews who live in or whose ancestors came from those areas), so much so that the area in upstate New York with numerous summer resorts that was a popular vacation spot for NYC Jews from the 1920s-1960s was known as The Borscht Belt, not least because Jews were excluded from many other vacations spots. The movie Dirty Dancing was set there.
Borscht is one of those dishes that has as many variations as there are cooks who make it – maybe even more. Though closely associated with beets, some versions don’t contain any. It can be a deeply satisfying hot soup to combat freezing winters, or refreshing, served chilled in sweltering summers. It’s a beautiful red, or an even more gorgeous pink when sour cream or yoghurt is added. It can be vegetarian or contain meat, and is easily made low calorie, low carbohydrate and/or low fat.
Leftovers freeze well, so I always make a big pot full.
- 3 qt. beef, chicken, or vegetable stock or broth, low sodium if purchased
- 3 lbs. red beets, cooked and diced, about 6 cups
- 1 1/2 c. diced onion, preferably red
- 2-4 minced garlic cloves, or more or less to taste
- 6-8 shredded cabbage, loosely packed
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Optional additions, cut into bite-sized pieces:
- 1 1/2 lbs. beef suitable for stewing, such as chuck or 1 lbs. smoked sausage
- Vegetables, up to 2 c. each, no more than 3 or 4 types: potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, canned or fresh, parsnips, celery, turnips, rutabagas
- Sour cream or thick yoghurt
- Snipped fresh dill
- Thinly sliced scallions
Bring the stock to a boil in a large pot. Add the meat, if using, and the vegetables. Bring the mixture back to a boil, then reduce to a slow simmer and cover the pot.
Simmer for at least 40 minutes. If using the beef, check that it is completely tender; if not, simmer until it is.
Season to taste with salt and pepper, then serve in individual bowls, topped with a dollop of sour cream or yoghurt and sprinkled with dill and scallions.
Makes a gallon or more.