Appreciate the brilliance of beets

I was well into adulthood before I considered beets to be anything special. My childhood memories aren't kind to this humble root.

Beets then came in a can. Only in a can. Pickled or plain, the texture was tolerable but hardly exciting, and the flavor was always, well, beet-ish.

Then along came Marian Morash, cookbook author and co-host of the popular, late-20th-century PBS television series "The Victory Garden." One special night back in 1985, I was fortunate enough to be at a banquet orchestrated by Morash during her stint as guest chef at The Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park.

The entire meal was fabulous, of course. But I'll spare you the mouth-watering details in the interest of staying on message, except to say that the succulent bay scallops that had been scooped from Nantucket Bay a mere eight hours earlier and overnighted to the Sierras in time for the evening meal were exquisite.

Chef Morash's life-altering beets arrived further along in the meal, as a very supportive side dish to rack of lamb. The beets seemed like an unusual accompaniment at the time, but I had confidence in her culinary savvy, so was keeping an open mind.

The coarsely grated vegetable had been gently sauteed in a bit of butter, creating an offering that was rich in color and delicately crunchy. The flavor? A hint of earthiness that all beets harbor but as refined and subtle as a well-balanced Oregon pinot. This batch had never seen the inside of a can.

Obviously, this experience gave me a new respect for beets. I've been experimenting with them ever since. Available throughout the year, beets are typically cooked before eating. All beets "bleed," but it's the red ones that stain most dramatically thanks to the pigment betanin that gives them their intense color.

To minimize bleeding, avoid cutting beets before cooking. Leave about 1 inch of the greens intact, as well as the thin, hairy root tip. Trimming occurs after cooking. As far as cooking techniques are concerned, the most basic methods include steaming, boiling, roasting and grilling (after a quick parboil).

Besides rack of lamb, good accompaniments include all citrus and a variety of greens and herbs, such as tarragon, chervil, dill, fennel and parsley. Young and tender beet leaves are delectable served raw in salads, as well as steamed, sauteed or stir-fried. Hence, you'll quite often encounter the greens on their own, without the beet root attached.

If you're thinking of growing them this summer, consider varieties beyond red. Two notables are the golden beet, which is a warm yellow with light-green leaves, and the Chioggia beet, an Italian heirloom variety that displays concentric red and white rings. You'll find these to be slightly more delicate in flavor, but the differences are really visual ones than changes in taste.

BOILED BEETS: The generally accepted method for boiling beets is to place them in a pan of unsalted, cold water. After bringing them to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer; cook, uncovered, until the beets are barely tender. Count on 25 to 30 minutes for a 11/2-inch beet.

OVEN-STEAMED IN FOIL: Wash and trim the beets but don't dry them. Wrap each damp beet in aluminum foil. Place them in a preheated, 350-degree oven and steam them in their own juices until they sizzle and are tender-crisp, about one hour. Remove the foil, allow the beets to stand until they can be handled and then proceed with any recipe calling for cooked or roasted beets.

BAKED BEETS: Trim and wash whole beets, leaving their skins on. Put beets into an ovenproof pan, cover and bake in a 300-degree oven until tender. Figure on 1 hour for 11/2-inch beets. Beets cook best at a low temperature (at higher temperatures, without moisture, the result is a richer, almost charred flavor), but when you're baking other dishes at a higher temperature, such as 350 degrees or 375 degrees, add about 1/4 inch of water to the dish and check occasionally to make sure the water doesn't evaporate.

STEAMED BEETS: Wash beets, taking care not to puncture the skin. Put 1 inch of water in the pot and bring to a boil. Place beets in the steamer basket or in a colander, cover tightly and steam until tender, about 40 minutes for a 11/2-inch beet.

MICROWAVED: 1 pound whole beets (5 beets, 21/2 inches across) placed in a covered dish with 1/4 cup liquid will cook tender in 10 to 11 minutes. A fast and easy way to cook beets.

FINISHING TOUCHES FOR COOKED BEETS: (From "The Victory Garden Cookbook"); five (21/2-inch in diameter) trimmed, whole beets yields about 21/2 cups cooked beets:

  • With cream — Coat 21/2 cups diced or sliced beets with 1/4 cup heavy cream mixed with 1/4 cup sour cream and warm together without boiling. Garnish with chopped parsley or dill.
  • With butter — Reheat beets in melted butter, approximately 2 to 3 tablespoons for 21/2 cups beets. Season with salt, pepper and fresh lemon juice.
  • With vinaigrette — Peel, slice and serve warm, dressed to taste with the Vinaigrette Sauce found in the accompanying recipe for Russian Beet and Potato Salad.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail at

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