Beet basics

Borscht was the way beets appeared on our table when I was growing up; When we lived in Paris, we learned from the French how tasty beets can be in salads.

Beetroot thoran – sautéed beets with coconut and cashews (photo credit: MATT ARMENDARIZ)
Beetroot thoran – sautéed beets with coconut and cashews
(photo credit: MATT ARMENDARIZ)
‘Being of Russian descent, I thought of beets in connection with borscht – and the north,” wrote Barbara Kafka in Vegetable Love. “They do grow well in cold climates, but it turns out they are, like many European plants, of Mediterranean origin.”
Borscht was the way beets appeared on our table when I was growing up. When we lived in Paris, we learned from the French how tasty beets can be in salads.
We used to buy baked beets at our neighborhood’s open-air market, preparing them the way we enjoyed eating them at casual restaurants. We added them in thin strips to our plates of crudités, or in slices to vinaigrette-dressed greens topped with walnuts.
In the US until recently, beets were usually just boiled or canned, wrote Elizabeth Schneider, author of Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini. New uses have been introduced by a generation of chefs with an international repertoire. “Beets have come up in the world,” she wrote. “Nestled beneath foie gras, accented with truffles or stirred into risotto, the formerly lowly roots now grace the most elegant tables.”
For composed salads, Schneider cooks beets briefly, only until they lose their rawness but not their crunch. After chilling them in cold water, she peels beets and cuts them in cubes or in julienne (fine strips). She combines the beets with ingredients ranging from smoked meat or fish to grains, fruits or firm bitter greens, and might add nuts, fennel or celery root. To dress beet salads she opts for a tart, sharp dressing, adding fresh herbs such as thyme, tarragon, chives, mint or dill.
“Complement cooked beets with strong flavors,” she advises, “whether biting (horseradish, chile, ginger, mustard greens); bitter (chicories, watercress); acidic (balsamic or fruit vinegars, citrus fruits); spicy (Sichuan pepper, curry, caraway); or salty (olives, capers, anchovies).”
Schneider is fond of beets steamed over water, to which she adds aromatic flavorings such as orange peel, anise or fennel seeds, cardamom, a cinnamon stick, or sprigs of tarragon, marjoram or thyme. When the beets are tender, she peels them, strains the steaming liquid and uses it to make a simple sauce. She boils it until concentrated, adds butter and salt, then mixes in the peeled and sliced beets.
For maximum flavor, sweetness and ease of peeling, Schneider recommends baking beets. This is the technique used by Rick Rogers, author of The Big Book of Sides, for his roasted beets with balsamic orange glaze. He wraps each whole beet in foil and bakes them until tender, then peels and cuts them in small pieces. He then cooks the beets with chopped shallots sautéed in butter, orange juice and zest, balsamic vinegar and a touch of brown sugar until they are glazed, seasoning them with salt and pepper. Sometimes he makes the mixture into a salad by adding baby greens, diced oranges and coarsely chopped walnuts.
Roasting beets in pieces is another popular technique among today’s cooks. Nava Atlas, author of the just-published Plant Power, roasts beet chunks on their own or combined with other root vegetables such as carrots, turnips and sweet potatoes. “Even those who say they don’t like beets might change their minds when they taste the vegetables served this way,” wrote Atlas. (See recipe.)
For a beet dish that cooks in a few minutes, you can first shred the beets. Aarti Sequeira, author of the new book Aarti Paarti – An American Kitchen With an Indian Soul, cooks grated beets with coconut, spices and garlic sautéed with mustard seeds, and garnishes the dish with cashew nuts. (See recipe.)
Red beets (but not yellow) color whatever foods are mixed with them. That’s why cooks often add red beets last to salads and other preparations, so that the other vegetables keep their colors. For some dishes, beets’ tendency to turn everything purple-pink can result in a pretty, bright pink dish, like the organic quinoa beet salad we tasted at Erewhon Natural Foods Market in Calabasas, California. The cooked quinoa and diced beets were mixed with diced cucumber, dill and chives, and dressed with lemon juice, olive oil, sea salt and pepper.
Kafka even makes beets into ice cream. “A little reflection will remind us that sugar beets are grown for extracting sugar,” she wrote. “Ordinary beets are still very sweet, and the color [of desserts made with them] is... spectacular.”
Beet tips:
• Raw beets can be stored for weeks in the refrigerator. Beets also keep well once cooked.
• Schneider recommends scrubbing beets with a vegetable brush to rid them of sand, and notes it is best to peel beets after cooking them. Some use disposable gloves when handling beets.
• Atlas wrote: “Peeling raw beets is challenging. Partially cooking them, either in a saucepan with just enough water to cover or in the microwave (about 2 minutes per raw beet), really helps. Cook just until you can poke through about 6 mm. (¼ inch) into the beet with a knife. Let the beets cool to room temperature. (If you need to expedite this, plunge them into a bowl of ice water.) To minimize the mess when cutting, peel the beets over the trash or compost container, then slice or chop them on a cutting board covered with wax paper.”
Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning book, Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.
Roasted root vegetables
Makes 4 to 6 servings
“Oven-roasting brings out the natural sweetness of many vegetables,” wrote Nava Atlas in Plant Power, “and this is particularly true in the case of root vegetables... As you’re slicing and cutting the vegetables, make sure everything is of a uniform thickness – about 1.25 cm. or half an inch – to ensure even roasting.”
Atlas notes that you can vary the vegetables and the quantities. Sometimes she adds halved Brussels sprouts, pieces of yellow squash or thin slices of red onion. To make the roasted vegetables into a main dish, she serves them on a bed of cooked lentils.
To roast beets on their own, see Note below.
❖ 1 large sweet potato, peeled, cut in half lengthwise and sliced
❖ 2 medium beets (red or golden), peeled and cut into bite-size chunks (see Tips above)
❖ 3 to 4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1.25-cm. (½-inch)-thick slices, or about 1 cup baby carrots
❖ 2 to 3 medium parsnips, peeled and cut into 1.25-cm. (½-inch)-thick slices
❖ 1 large or 2 medium turnips, peeled and cut into large chunks
❖ 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
❖ 2 Tbsp. maple syrup, blackstrap molasses or agave nectar
❖ Pinch each of ground cinnamon and nutmeg
❖ Fresh rosemary leaves to taste (optional)
❖ Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 220°C (425°F). Combine all vegetables in a large mixing bowl. Drizzle in oil and maple syrup, then sprinkle in cinnamon and nutmeg. Stir together.
Transfer mixture to a lightly oiled large roasting pan (lined with parchment if you like).
Bake for 30 minutes, more or less, stirring every 10 minutes or so. Vegetables should be tender on inside and touched with golden brown on outside.
Toward end of cooking time, sprinkle on some fresh rosemary leaves if desired. Season with salt and pepper, then transfer to a covered serving container. Serve immediately or keep warm until mealtime.
Note: Simple roasted beets:
Allow one medium beet per serving. Peel beets (see Tips above). Cut in bite-size chunks. Place in a parchment-lined baking dish and drizzle with a bit of olive oil. Bake at 205°C or 220°C (400°F or 425°F) for 20 to 30 minutes, or until tender to your liking; stir once or twice during that time.
Beetroot thoran – sautéed beets with coconut and cashews
Makes 4 to 6 servings
Aarti Sequeira flavors this bright pink Indian dish with cumin, turmeric and paprika, and just a pinch of red chili flakes so it is not hot.
It’s a quick way to prepare beets – they need to cook for only five minutes.
 ❖ 1 cup dried shredded unsweetened coconut
❖ 1 cup water
❖ 2 tsp. ground cumin
❖ ½ tsp. ground turmeric
❖ ¼ tsp. paprika
❖ Pinch of red chili flakes or cayenne
❖ Coarse salt to taste
❖ 1 Tbsp. sunflower oil
❖ 2 cloves garlic, crushed
❖ 1 tsp. black or brown mustard seeds
❖ 700 gr. (about 1½ pounds) red beets (about 4 medium), coarsely grated (about 6 cups)
❖ 2 to 3 Tbsp. cashew nuts, toasted
❖ Freshly ground black pepper
In a small bowl, stir together coconut, water, cumin, turmeric, paprika, red chili flakes and 1 teaspoon coarse salt. Set aside.
In a large, preferably nonstick wok or sauté pan, heat oil over medium heat. When oil is shimmering, add garlic. Once garlic is gently golden on one side, about 30 seconds, add mustard seeds. They should start to pop.
Carefully add coconut mixture; it will sputter, so be cautious! Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until mixture thickens slightly and becomes fragrant.
Add beets and toss to coat with coconut mixture.
Cook for about 5 minutes, until beets are cooked through but still have a little bite to them (they shouldn’t be mushy or slimy). The finished dish will look a little dry, which is perfect! Sprinkle with cashew nuts and serve.