One of the joys of living in a temperate climate is being able to go to a farmer’s market in the middle of January and peruse the offerings of the moment. Eating seasonally in California often feels like cheating, since so much produce grows here year-round. Typically, in January, we get a lot of root vegetables, avocados, mushrooms, and one final week of grapes.
While grapes aren’t the sort of thing that can be found everywhere, root vegetables are (generally) widely available across the country in the wintertime, being the type of produce that doesn’t mind the cold and can stand up to less favorable conditions. I’ve been growing beets and carrots in our community garden plot, and while they are growing slowly, they are growing nonetheless.
Unfortunately, root vegetables can be a hard sell. It seems that people either love them or are really turned off by them. When roots are in season, they can be hard to embrace, but skipping vegetables altogether until spring will make you too unhealthy to embrace, well, pretty much anything.
Some roots are more palatable than others, but none seems to inspire quite as much consternation as the humble beet. Grown in the dirt, filled with highly-staining blood-red juice, simultaneously savory and sweet. It’s no wonder that we have trouble figuring out what to do with them.
I’m here to help.
There are so many ways to cook a beet. My favorite method is roasting them in the oven, slathered in olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. They’re quite easy to peel once they’re roasted – the skin just peels right away from the flesh. If you’re using red beets, you’ll quickly find that their color exudes onto any surface it touches – your fingers, cutting board, knife, clothes… watch out for its natural dye, but it does come off of skin and culinary tools with relative ease. Just don’t plan on playing with beets in your favorite white shirt. If the thought of turning your kitchen red is enough to turn you off from beets, try a golden beet instead. They have a slightly sweeter, milder taste and are not interested in changing the color of everything they touch. I brought home some of both.
While you may be able to find beets sold sans leaves, you’ll also run into times when there’s no way around bringing home the greens too. Seemingly pesky as you experiment with beet roots, beet greens are absolutely edible, rich in Vitamins A and K, which boost your immune system and helps you absorb calcium, which promotes bone strength. No need to avoid the greens – you can treat them as you would any bitter green. In fact, chard is a variety of beet grown primarily for its leaves, and you can treat the leaves of most beets just the same. A basic technique is to wilt them, adding a splash of acid to cut the bitterness. For comparison, I sauteed the greens from each type of beet separately, each with onions sautéed in olive oil, pepper flakes, lemon juice and seasoned with salt and pepper. The greens from the red beets definitely are exemplary of a beet’s particular flavor, while the greens from golden beet tasted more like it’s cousin, chard.
If you’re not in the mood for greens, or just aren’t partial to eating them, you can use them as part of a vegetable stock. I do this often, especially when we become overrun by beet tops, orphaned onion bottoms and fresh herbs threatening to go bad. Using them in the stock enables us to get some of the nutritive properties of beet greens without eating them straight. Plus, the red beet greens turn your stock a vibrant red, which is pretty cool.
Now, onto the beet roots. You can simply roast them at 400° F for 40-60 minutes or more. I like to rub them with a thin coat of olive oil, season them with salt and pepper and wrap them in aluminum foil. I recommend putting them on a rimmed baking sheet, as they have a tendency to throw juice, and it’s no fun to clean baked-on juice out of your oven.1 I’ve seen a lot of variation in roasting temperatures and cooking time, but it depends on your oven, how many beets you are roasting and how large they are. I suggest checking on them after 30 minutes, poking them with a fork to check their tenderness. They should feel like cooked potatoes when they are ready. They’re not the type of vegetable to turn on you quickly, suddenly turning to mush or bursting into flame, so letting them go another 10 minutes if they’re not fully cooked yet is fine. Whenever I roast beets, I prepare to be available to check on them for about 90 minutes, just to be sure.
After the beets are peeled, there are a whole multitude of uses for them. You can simply slice them up and drizzle a little bit of lemon juice and olive oil over them and eat them like that, or over arugula or any leafy green. They pair well with acid, so combining them with lemon, grapefruit or oranges is a good option. You can also add them to risotto, pair them with avocados, and crumble goat cheese over them. Recently, I used golden beets in a salad similar to this one, because we were lucky enough to find some greenhouse-grown Pink Beauty tomatoes at the farmer’s market, and I just couldn’t resist a taste of summer in the dead of winter.
I’ve also enjoyed beets raw as part of a lovely bagna cauda. If you’re going to try them raw, I recommend seeking out a chioggia beet, a gorgeous Italian varietal originating from Chioggia, just outside of Venice. Its stunning pink and white stripes fade when cooked, so it’s a perfect option for a raw application.
If you’re still not convinced to integrate beets into your winter diet, consider giving them a shot as a dessert. Their moisture content and sweet flavor makes them an interesting addition to sweet applications. I love Joy the Baker’s Chocolate Beet Cake with Beet Cream Cheese Frosting.2 The recipe allows the beet to contribute depth to the flavor of the cake, as well as doing what it loves most – turning everything hot pink. Harnessing that quality enables you to get a fantastically vibrant frosting color with no artificial coloring at all. It’s such fun to watch it all come together. Admittedly, I am a huge color geek, but it really is unbelievable to get such a wonderful look out of so little juice. To quote Joy, “Beets do not make the cake taste like a salad.” She’s not kidding – this is one of the best chocolate cakes out there.
There are, of course, many other culinary experiments to be done with a beet – what if we add some puree to mashed potatoes? Use it in a juice mixture? 3 Turn it into chips? Experiment, and you may find a new favorite flavor combination.
When you think about it, we’re lucky that the beet is available during the winter – it’s packed with nutrition, the whole plant is edible, and it brings color to any dish. With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, I think it’s an excellent time to eat with the seasons and make something festive and pink.
- Actually, it’s pretty easy to clean beet juice off of most surfaces, but who wants to clean their oven if they don’t have to?.↩
- I recommend making your own buttermilk, using a high quality cream, and using both the butter and the buttermilk in the recipe.↩
- Try beets, carrots and apples together for a colorful and healthy juice. Either send them through a juicer, or roast them until they are soft and put them in a food processor. ↩