Growing up in Pittsburgh in the early 70’s I remember my mother always having canned goods in the house. The Green Giant variety seems to be my main recollection; corn, peas, green beans and beets. It’s funny to think about that now, because in our house the only two canned vegetables I keep in my pantry are tomatoes for sauce and beans for salads. I will say that I generally enjoy making beans from scratch, as they are really not hard to make – only requiring a little planning on my part to soak over night; but in a pinch, for a quick dish, you can’t go wrong with having ceci, cannellini or even black beans handy.
I remember my mother always saying my Dad liked beets (and still does) and she would make them, using the canned variety of course, with sliced onions and olive oil. I honestly have no real food memory of eating them as a little kid, strange to say, but I’m sure I did. I think the first time I had a fresh beets was many years later, buying them at Fairway in New York City, near my first apartment building on the Upper West Side. After a quick perusal of my Better Homes and Garden cookbook (the only one I had back then) I boiled, peeled and sliced them. I remember I loved the fresh earthy flavor. Not being completely set up in my kitchen or even having a clear cooking thought-process in those days, I decided that even though I did like them, they seemed too messy and complicated to deal with. (Shame on me!) It would not be until years later when I really started to expand my culinary repertoire that I rediscovered them, and have been making them pretty regularly ever since.
Beets are generally known to be red. It’s only been in the past few years the beautiful golden variety have made an appearance in grocery stores and given mainstream shoppers some variety. Farmers markets on the other hand have not only red and gold, but also white – which are quite pretty.
I like to think of beets as a real “super food.” They are very low in calories and contain only small amount of fat. Their nutritional benefits come particularly from fiber, vitamins, minerals, and unique plant derived anti-oxidants. Red beets are a rich source of a compound called Betaine. Betaine is important as it helps lower the amino acid homocysteine, which is linked to heart disease. Raw beets are an excellent source of Folate and Vitamin C. Beet greens (the tops) are an excellent source of Vitamin A.
So with all that great goodness, what should we do? After a little pondering, I decided it would be fun to show you two different ways to use beets in recipes this week: one is a simple salad and one a cold soup.
Your initial prep for both recipes will be the same: trim the stalk about 2 inches from the beet, and set the greens/stalks aside. With a small brush clean the beet under warm water to remove any dirt that might be lurking about, then give the stems and leaves a good rinse and set on some paper towels. You start the beets in cold water, as you would potatoes, adding equal amounts of salt and sugar. Bring to a boil and then simmer until cooked through. You want them to be tender in the middle, not mushy. So keep checking after about 10-15 minutes. Cook time all depends on their size. (I should note that since I was making the gold and red I cooked them in separate pots, wanting to keep the gold color.)
After they are done simply pull out of the water and let them cool a bit. If you are cooking the red variety I would suggest wearing disposable gloves at this point. Your hands will be stained for a few hours if not. Use a paper towel to rub off the skins while they are warm. If they end up getting cold you can use a vegetable peeler to get the job done.
For the beet salad I simple chopped up the greens and tossed them with equal parts of extra virgin olive oil and white wine vinegar with a pinch of salt, pepper and honey to taste. For this salad I kept the greens raw – but you can wilt them slightly in a sauté pan with olive oil. It’s totally up to you – both ways they taste delicious.
I used the same dressing for the beets plus added a little mustard seed for flavor and texture. I also want to note that the best time to add your dressing is when they are still warm. Once the beets get cold, very much like potatoes, the dressing doesn’t get a chance to soak in. They will still taste fine – but so much better if they can really take on the flavor! All together I had about a 1/2 cup of the dressing. So 1/4 cup each of vinegar and olive oil and then a dash of honey, salt and pepper. Use a couple of tablespoons on the greens and the rest for your beets.
Starting with the same process for the soup I just added a few other things to my beets and came up with a pretty simple dish for you to try. My onion ratio ended up being 1 cup. Use what you have in your kitchen. Although I did not try it, I’m sure a sweet Vidalia would work just as well. So while the beets were cooking I sautéed my leek and scallion. The key is to just sweat the onions to soften them and bring out their natural sugars and flavor. I wasn’t going for the caramelized flavor here.
Everything goes straight to the blender to be pureed. I used the water that the beets were cooking in as my “stock” for the soup. You can see my ratio below, but do this to your preferred texture. Just keep in mind that the soup will thicken slightly as it cools. Recheck the seasoning at this point and add salt and pepper to taste. Then get it into a container and into the ‘fridge. You want this soup to be nice and cold when you serve it.
For an added zip I topped it with a little chèvre, which I had handy and some of my beet greens – just because they are so darn pretty – and good for you too! You can also use a little plain Greek yogurt or even sour cream if you like … I think a little tang set this soup right over the top.
I’ll be at the Rye Brook Farmers Market this coming Saturday, so please stop by for a taste.
I hope you enjoy these two ways to eat beets.
Maria’s Cold Beet Soup
1 bunch of beets, about 1½ lb.
Ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
1 small leek, white part only, chopped
1 medium shallot, chopped
Chevre (goat) cheese
Beet green, garnish
Trim the greens from the beet leaving about 2” from the base of the beet. Wash the beets and greens thoroughly. Set the greens and stalks aside for another use, wrapping loosely in a paper towel and place in a plastic bag.
Place the beets in a small 4-quart pot and add cold water to cover by 3 inches. Add 1 tablespoon each of kosher salt and sugar. Bring to a boil then lower heat and simmer until the beets are tender on the inside, testing with a small paring knife. Depending on the size of the beets this step will take 10-20 minutes.
In a small sauté pan heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil gently and add the equivalent of 1 cup of onion to the pan. Season with ¼ teaspoon each of salt and pepper and gently sweat the onions until they are soft and translucent. Scoop out ½ cup of beet water and add to the pan mixing into the sautéed onions. Turn off the heat and allow the mixture to cool.
Once the beets are cooked remove them from the pot, but save the liquid. Allow them to cool slightly, about 5 minutes, and then remove the skins using a paper towel. (You might also want to use latex gloves as well – the beets will definitely stain your hands!) Chop in to quarters and place in your blender. Add the onion mixture along with all of the liquid from that pan to beets in the blender. Then add 2 cups of beet water. Cover the lid of the blender with a kitchen towel if the liquid is still hot, and hold down firmly. Blend on the low speed and slowly increase. (This is very important, you don’t want the lid shooting off and making a huge mess in your kitchen.)
Once your mix is blended add another cup of the beet liquid pureeing very well and then check the consistency. Depending on your taste you can add a little more beet water, but I found this to be the best ratio with 1½ pounds of beets, which ended up being 9 in total, from my bunch.
Check for seasoning and add a little more salt and pepper to taste. Place the soup in a container and when completely cool cover and put in the ‘fridge for at least 3 hours. To serve top with a tablespoon of chevre or plain Greek yogurt and garnish with some thinly sliced ribbons of a beet green.
Maria Reina is a personal chef, caterer and recreational cooking class teacher in Port Chester, NY. In her free time she loves hanging out at local Farmers Markets in Westchester County doing cooking demos with seasonal ingredients. In addition to her blog you can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.