Learning to love beets took time

Learning to love beets took time

Although I wasn't raised on them, acquaintance with certain root vegetables — parsnips, turnips, rutabagas, even gnarly-looking celeriac — came easily.

But despite their affinity for delicious goat cheese, beets still repelled my best efforts at getting to know them.

I tried roasting, which is supposed to make beets sweet and tender. But as soon as I started stripping away the rough, unappetizing skin and saw my fingers stained that strangely menacing magenta, I was transported back to my childhood refusal to eat pickled beets. Found almost nowhere in nature, that peculiar color bleeding into my ranch dressing was as much to blame for my aversion to beets as their rubberiness rendered by canning.

I kept trying to like beets, though, and eventually reached a truce with help from prettier, heirloom varieties, including golden and candy-striped ones. Over time, beets' easygoing way in the garden improved their image in my eyes. Last summer, I even bought a shirt sporting a pattern of stylized red beets.

It's appropriate that I've been wearing the shirt year-round because beets are a reliable, local crop season in and season out. Red and chiogga beets grown on the certified-organic Whistling Duck Farm in Applegate can be purchased all winter from the online farmers market Rogue Valley Local Foods (www.roguevalleylocalfoods.org) or Ashland Food Co-op.

Like just about every vegetable, beets flourish in the optimal growing conditions of summer. But they're hardy enough to withstand inclement weather. When carrots split open and turned to mush from last winter's low of 10 degrees, beets nestled safe in the soil.

"They're one of those things that you can just leave in the ground," says Suzi Fry, co-owner of Talent's Fry Family Farm. "They are more forgiving than carrots."

Sure, my beets emerged a little stunted. But they were still delicious roasted and, because they were so small, didn't require peeling before eating.

So I needed no convincing to sow a few rows of beet seeds last fall, which took neither pampering nor cajoling to pop up like weeds. And as kale, fennel and spinach suffered under an onslaught of bugs, the beets held their own.

Now, months later, the beets are a bright spot in an otherwise bleak gardening landscape. With temperatures warming and sunny days on the horizon, I'm glad I gave them some time to stretch their leaves and round out their roots.

Their respite won't last long, though, because beets are among the first vegetables sold at Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market's mid-March opening in Ashland and Medford. In addition to Whistling Duck, Fry Family and Blue Fox farms usually start their market seasons with beets.

For plentiful beets, there's no better use than borscht. Sometimes served cold, this Eastern-European specialty is the rare dish in which I find beets' distinctive hue beautiful, even leaching into a dollop of sour cream.

While I'm fairly ambivalent toward gazpacho, Vichyssoise and chilled cucumber soups, borscht — with its contrasting flavors of earthy beets and tangy buttermilk, yogurt or creme fraiche — is mouthwatering, and not just in summer. Recently voted one of the Los Angeles Times' top recipes of 2010, this soup could be warmed slightly in winter to increase its appeal.

Mail Tribune Food Editor Sarah Lemon can be reached at 541-776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com. For more tips, recipes and local food news, read her blog at mailtribune.com/wholedish

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