For people with Eastern European roots, beets mean one thing—Borscht; an ancient, one-pot meal, brimming with beets, beef, tomatoes, and cabbage. But that peasant stew bears little resemblance to the ruby-violet puree, crowned with sour cream and dill, peddled at New York-style delis today.
But beets have broken free of their dusty Old World image. Now this inexpensive red root is showing up on every part of the menu. Thinly sliced homemade beet chips make an elegant bar snack. On the appetizer menu, they’re a colorful foil for goat cheese salads.
For dinner, they can accompany everything from duck confit to a golden-skinned chicken. On the side of the plate, roasted beets pair up well with their root vegetable cousins—parsnips, turnips, and carrots, seasoned with salt, pepper, and thyme. And for a creative twist on a traditional potato pancake, they can be shredded with potatoes and formed into a crisp, savory vegetable cake.
Juiced beets are also ideal for sauces. Thickened with olive oil, seasoned with salt and pepper and a touch of vinegar, they liven up vegetables, fish, or poultry. And some chefs have even introduced the root to the dessert menu—chocolate beet cake with beet buttercream frosting and red beet ice cream is slowly moving into the mainstream. (Is this goodbye, apple pie?)
First cultivated in Rome, the red beet is also known as the garden beet or the beetroot. This firm, round root vegetable has nutritious and edible leafy green tops. While the most common beets are the color of garnets, today’s varieties come in gold, orange, pale ivory, and even striped. Some are perfectly round; others long and slender. They range in size from as small as a grape to as large as a grapefruit—and everywhere in between.
Beets are available year round, although they are best in summer and early winter. Choose firm beets with smooth skins. Beets are packaged for foodservice in 25- and 50-lb. sacks and cartons holding 12 or 24 bunches. Small or medium beets are generally more tender than the large ones. If beet greens are attached, they should be crisp and bright green with red veins. Because the greens take moisture from the bulb, they should be removed as soon as the beets are received. Be sure to leave 1-in. stems and keep the rootlets in place to prevent loss of nutrients and color while cooking. If buying beets with the greens removed, stay away from any that are dry, shriveled, or cracked.
Beets can be stored for about three weeks in loosely sealed plastic bags (preferably at between 32° and 46°F). Just before cooking, they should be scrubbed gently, taking care not to remove their skin. When handling cooked beets, consider wearing rubber gloves to prevent staining the skin a blood-red color. Yellow and orange beets do not bleed.
Beets can be boiled, baked, or roasted—the latter method concentrates their sweetness and makes their texture firmer and creamier. Baking and roasting are convenient when the stovetop is crowded. Raw beets can be shaved or grated over salads. To cook greens, wilt in a sauté pan and drizzle with olive oil; serve as is or in salads or pasta dishes.