Up until adulthood I had little respect for beets. For one thing, the ones I had been encountering 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, late in the 20th century, celebrity chef Marian Morash of the popular PBS television series “The Victory Garden” provided a new perspective. It was during a special meal she was preparing for about 100 of us during her stint as guest chef at The Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park.
Chef Morash’s life-altering beets arrived midway through 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, rendering 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. No longer dismissive, I’ve kept an open mind as to their flexibility and contribution on the culinary spectrum, 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, which gives them their intense color. To minimize bleeding, avoid cutting them before cooking. Leave about one inch of the greens intact, as well as the thin, hairy root tip. In other words, unless you want to color the entire preparation (as in a borscht), trimming, peeling, and chopping 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 anything citrus, a variety of greens, and herbs such as tarragon, chervil, dill, fennel and parsley. Young and tender beet leaves are delectable raw in salads, steamed, sauteed or stir-fried. Hence, you’ll quite often encounter them on their own, without the beet root attached.
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, uncovered, until the beets are barely tender. Count on 25 to 30 minutes for a 1-1/2-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 1 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.
ROASTED BEETS: Trim and wash whole beets, leaving skins on. Put beets into an oven-proof pan, cover, and bake in 300 degree F oven until tender. Figure on 1 hour for 1-1/2-inch beets. Beets cook best at a low temperature (at higher temperatures, without moisture, the result is a richer, but 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 1-1/2-inch beet.
MICROWAVED: 1 pound whole beets (5 beets, 2-1/2-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.
MARIAN MORASH’S RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FINISHING TOUCHES FOR COOKED BEETS (From “The Victory Garden Cookbook”); 5 (2-1/2-inch in diameter) trimmed, whole beets yields about 2-1/2 cups cooked:
Grated Sauteed Beets
Makes 4 servings.
Here’s the recipe that won me over at Marian Morash’s banquet. It’s simplicity itself: Grate peeled or small, unpeeled raw beets and you’re all set to cook. The beets retain a slight crunch and all their basic flavor.
4 medium beets
4 tablespoons butter
Fresh lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Chopped fresh dill or parsley
Wash, peel, and coarsely grate the beets if the skin is tough-looking. In a frying pan, melt butter, add beets, and stir to coat with butter, then sprinkle with lemon juice to taste. Cover and cook over medium to low heat for approximately 10 minutes, checking occasionally to see that the beets don’t burn. You could add a few spoonfuls of stock or water to prevent sticking. Cook just until tender, then season with salt, pepper, and additional lemon juice if needed. Sprinkle with dill or parsley.
Variations: 1.You can also cook beets before grating, or use leftover cooked beets
2. Grate other vegetables, such as cabbage, carrots, and parsnips, cook separately, and arrange in mounds on a vegetable platter
Recipe from “The Victory Garden Cookbook,” by Marian Morash.
Borscht Ukrainsky (Ukranian Style Beet Soup)
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
I encountered this heavenly soup back in 2001 during a special feast cooked up by a group of Corvallis “Sister City” visitors from Uzhgorod, Ukraine. It’s somewhat labor-intensive to prepare, but well-worth it!
4 medium tomatoes
4 tablespoons butter
1 finely chopped onion
2 fresh cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 pound beets, trimmed of leaves and coarsely grated to measure about 2 cups
½ celery root, peeled and coarsely grated to measure 1 cup
1 parsnip, peeled and coarsely grated to measure 1 cup
½ teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons salt (more to taste)
2 quarts beef stock (see note below; preferably fresh, but canned is okay)
1 pound potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-1/2-inch chunks
1 pound green cabbage, cored and coarsely shredded
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
1 cup sour cream
Drop the tomatoes into boiling water for 15 seconds. Run them under cold water and peel. Cut out the stem end, then slice in half crosswise and squeeze the halves gently to remove the juices and seeds; then chop them coarsely and set aside.
In a large skillet or pot, melt the butter over moderate heat. Add the onions and garlic, and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is very soft and slightly golden, about 10 minutes. Stir in the beets, celery root, parsnip, half the tomatoes, the sugar, vinegar, salt and 1-1/2 cups of the stock. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat, partially cover the pot and simmer for 40 minutes.
Meanwhile, pour the remaining stock into a 6- to 8-quart pot. Add the potatoes and cabbage. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer partially covered for 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender but not falling apart. Add this to the other pot of vegetables, along with the remaining tomatoes and the prepared beef brisket. Simmer, partially covered, for 10 to 15 minutes, until the dish is heated and the flavors are well blended. Adjust the seasoning. Serve with the parsley sprinkled on top. Either add a dollop of sour cream to each serving or pass it at the table for diners to serve themselves.
NOTE ON BEEF STOCK AND BEEF BRISKET: This may be prepared several days in advance and refrigerated. To prepare the stock from scratch and the necessary brisket for the soup: In a heavy 6 to 8 quart pot, over high heat, brown a 1 pound portion of lean brisket of beef on all sides in 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil or butter. Remove and add 5 pounds of beef marrow bones (cracked), which can be obtained from the meat department of a well-stocked supermarket. Stir them around in the pot so that a portion of them also brown slightly. Return the brisket to the pot, add 4 quarts of water and bring to a boil. Skim off any foam as it rises to the surface. Add 1 large onion (peeled and quartered), 1 large carrot (scraped and cut into 4 chunks), 2 celery tops (coarsely chopped), 6 sprigs of parsley, 2 bay leaves, and 1 tablespoon of salt. Partially cover the pot and reduce the heat. Simmer for 1 to 1-1/2 hours, or until the meat is very tender but not falling apart. Remove the meat from the pot and let cool until it can be comfortably handled.
Cut the meat into small pieces for the soup (whatever size is pleasing to you) and refrigerate until ready to use in the soup.
Meanwhile, continue to simmer the stock, partially covered, for about 4 hours longer. Strain the stock through a sieve set over a large bowl, discarding the bones and vegetables. Skim off and discard as much of the surface fat as you can.
Hot Red Kiev Borscht
Makes 8 to 10 servings.
Here’s a different, somewhat less labor-intensive take on borscht. This recipe was acquired by the late Bert Greene on a trip to the Ukraine many years ago, where he found the morning borscht flavored with ham and sausage. The raw beets are grated directly into the stockpot to give the brew a rich, deep color.
2-3/4 quarts chicken broth
1 pound chunk of cooked ham (you will chop it after the soup has cooked)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 large carrot, peeled, finely chopped
1 turnip, peeled, finely chopped
1 parsnip, peeled, finely chopped
2 large tomatoes, seeded, chopped
1 pound beets, peeled, roughly grated to equal about 2-1/2 cups
1 small cabbage (about 1 pound, shredded
1 pound potatoes, peeled, diced
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 pound Kielbasa (Polish sausage), sliced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
Place the chicken broth and the ham in a large heavy pot. Heat to boiling; reduce heat. Simmer, uncovered, for 25 minutes. Remove the ham and allow it to cool. Reserve the broth. Shred/chop the ham and set aside.
Heat the butter with the oil in another large heavy pot over medium-low heat. Add the onion; cook 2 minutes. Add the garlic; cook 1 minute longer. Stir in the carrot, turnip, parsnip, tomatoes, and grated beets. Add 2-1/2 cups of the reserved chicken broth. Heat to boiling; reduce the heat. Simmer, covered for 25 minutes.
Add the remaining chicken broth to the vegetable mixture. Add the reserved ham, the cabbage, and the potatoes. Simmer, partially covered, for 30 minutes. Stir in the pepper, ginger, and vinegar. Continue to cook, covered, over low heat for 1 hour. (Recipe may be prepared up to 24 hours in advance to this point, cooled, and refrigerated until ready to serve. The flavor will improve as it stands.)
To serve, reheat the soup if it was made in advance, and add the sliced sausage. Simmer, partially covered, about 15 minutes, until the sausage is hot. Adjust seasonings, adding additional salt or vinegar if needed. Sprinkle with chopped parsley.
Recipe from “Greene on Greens,” by Bert Greene.
— Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.