By Bonnie Fishman / San Francisco Bay Area
One of my all-time favorite root vegetables is beets. And not from a can! It was revolutionary when I ate my first fresh beet instead of the too-often-used canned variety. Was this even the same vegetable?! I was probably in my early 20s. What took me so long? I didn’t know any better. Canned vegetables were so prevalent back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. For some reason, many Greek restaurants still get away today with using canned beets in their traditional Greek salad with feta and garbanzo beans. Having been a restauranteur, the reason is simple. Prepping beets is labor-intensive compared to ye olde can opener. Also, they are less expensive. A travesty nonetheless.
Why eat beets? Besides being delicious, all-purpose, and a beautiful color, they have many health benefits. According to the Cleveland Clinic, beets contain betalains, which have antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. They are high in fiber and nitrates. “Beets contain nitrates, which help widen blood vessels that can help with blood pressure and may also improve athletic performance and brain function.” Beets also contain potassium, magnesium, Vitamin C, Vitamin B and folate. I’m thinking we should be eating beets more often!
Beets originated in prehistoric times in the Mediterranean region and were originally grown for chard, the beet greens. The Romans and Greeks ate the greens during ancient times. Germans and Italians began eating the root in the 1500s. But French chefs didn’t popularize eating the root until the 1800s. Beets generally like a cooler climate and grow biannually in the spring and fall. In the U.S., most beets are grown in North Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan and Idaho. Not only do we eat them as a vegetable, they are a major source of processed sugar.
And beets are quite versatile, from old world Russian borscht (beet soup) to modern-day beet salad, which has been appearing on just about every tony restaurant’s menu over the past 20 years. They are often paired with goat cheese - a mild chèvre or feta - dark greens, toasted nuts and possibly a fruit. I have to admit, I can rarely pass up one of these salads if I happen to eat out. Beets aren’t just a deep red vegetable anymore either. Beets can also be pickled with onions or served hot as a side dish with fresh lemon or orange juice and butter. There are a variety of colors from yellow to orange. Check out your farmer’s market for an eyeful.
Cooking beets is quite simple. One can either roast or boil them. It’s the peeling and slicing afterward that is unpleasant. A brief story here with a lesson learned. Decades ago, when my late sister Cindy was getting married, my other sisters and I decided to throw her an at-home shower. It was summer so we opted for a “chic” salad bar. I had just discovered fresh beets (hey, this was the ‘70s!) and wouldn’t it be nice to have them included?
My sister, Marcia was assigned to clean the cooked beets. We didn’t use food grade gloves back then–who knew from gloves? She diligently peeled and sliced a few pounds of beets. You know where this is going, don’t you? Marcia sat through our ladies shower with lovely red hands, because the stain doesn’t go away any time soon. Lesson: handle cooked beets with gloves!
Today’s recipe is more to get you inspired, rather than asking you to actually follow ingredient amounts. Before cooking the beets, cut off the tip of the root and the stems at the top of the bunch. I try to select very fresh-looking greens because they are delicious added to soups, sliced thin in salads, or cooked and eaten as a side of greens. I usually boil my beets in a pot of salted water. Depending on their size, this can take 30-45 minutes. When a fork inserted in the center goes in easily, they are done.
If you roast them, wrap each beet in foil. Place them on a cookie sheet and roast at 400º for 45-60 minutes. I personally don’t taste the difference between the two methods. When the beets are cool enough to handle, the skins should rub right off. One other tip: try to get same sized beets so they cook evenly. Cooked beets will last for up to a week in the fridge.
I have chosen to do an arranged salad to be served before a meal. Certainly it can be a light lunch entrée, but I would increase the volume. When using beets in a mixed tossed salad, I usually serve them separately for two reasons. Some people just don’t like them and more importantly, they dye the whole salad red. I find it very unappealing to eat pink feta!
Lastly, about the dressing. I’m suggesting a light sprinkling of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Hint: this is the time to bring out your finest extra virgin oil and imported vinegar. Taste really matters here. Many people enjoy a balsamic glaze instead. A generous sprinkling of coarse salt and fresh ground black pepper is also called for.
The beet goes on here at The Insider. Let us know what you decide to put in your beet salad!
Beet and Orange Salad
Yield: 6 side salads
5-6 medium beets, cooked and peeled (see directions above)
3 navel oranges
3 Cara Cara oranges
1 c. very finely sliced fennel
2 large handfuls of arugula
3 oz. crumbled feta
1/4 c. coarsely chopped pistachio meats (or slivered toasted almonds)
extra virgin olive oil
Slice the beets around the circumference into even widths. Reserve.
Using a sharp knife, remove the rind and pith of the oranges. Slice them around the circumference into even widths. Reserve.
Put a small handful of arugula on each 7-8” plate. Arrange the beets alternately with the oranges on top of the greens, evenly spaced. Put a pile of fennel in the center or off to the side of the beets/oranges. Sprinkle with the feta and nuts. Gently drizzle on the oil and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper.
Bonnie Fishman attended the Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London. Later, she owned and operated Bonnie’s Patisserie in Southfield, Mich. and Bonnie’s Kitchen and Catering in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She has taught cooking for over 35 years and created hundreds of recipes. She is now living in Northern California.