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Other Names: Barbabietola (Italy), beetroot (Britain), betterave (France).

General Description: The beet (Beta vulgaris) is closely related to Swiss chard and spinach, and grown for its root. Beets and their cousins all descended from the sea beet, a wild seashore plant grown throughout southern Europe, which has been eaten since prehistoric times. Low in calories, beets are notable for their sweetness—they have the highest sugar content of any vegetable. Common beets are deep red and contain a powerful dye, betacyanin, which stains fingers, cutting boards, and tablecloths a brilliant magenta. Many colorful varieties of beet are now available including golden beet, white beet, and the Chioggia (or candy cane) beet (which has red and white concentric stripes).

Season: Beets are available all year long, but their peak season, particularly for local and specialty varieties, is June through October. It’s also the time of year when beet greens will be at their best.

Purchase: Medium-sized beets—approximately 3 inches in diameter—are fine for most cooking purposes but small, young beets—about 1.5 inches in diameter—usually sold with their tops, are tender and cook relatively quickly. Beet greens should be bright, dark green, and fresh looking. Look for relatively smooth, hard, round beets with deep color. The surface should be unblemished. The taproot should be slender and whole. At least half an inch of the stems should remain, or the color will bleed from the tops.

Avoid: Very large storage beets may be extremely dense with unpalatable woody cores. They may take an extraordinarily long time to cook (up to 2 hours) but have the deepest color. Avoid beets with soft, moist spots or shriveled, flabby skin. Limp, yellowed leaves have lost their nutritional value; however, beets with wilted greens may still be acceptable, because the leaves deteriorate more quickly than the roots.

Storage: Because the greens draw moisture from the root, cut off greens before storing, leaving at least 1 inch of stem attached. Discard any damaged leaves before refrigerating the greens in a perforated plastic bag for no more than 2 days. Leaf-topped baby beets can be stored for 1 or 2 days with their tops intact. Store unwashed beet roots in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks. Check for firmness; as they age, they will soften. Don’t peel or clean the root—the skins slip off easily after cooking.

Preparation: Beet Greens:

  1. Pull off and discard large ribs.
  2. If desired, roll stacked, uncleaned beet greens and cut them crosswise before cleaning.
  3. Wash greens, whole or sliced, in a bowl of cool water, then scoop out.

Beet Roots:

Note: To preserve color and nutrients, beets should never be cut or peeled before cooking in liquid; they will “bleed” and turn dull brown. Beets are almost always cooked prior to use.

  1. Gently scrub the beets and rinse well, being careful not to break the thin skin. Leave at least 1 inch (2.5 cm) of stem and don’t trim the root.
  2. Add vinegar or lemon juice to cooking water so that red beets hold their color better.
  3. Cook the beets in one of the following ways:

Roast: Place foil-wrapped beets in a baking dish and bake at 350–400°F for 1 to 2 hours.

Boil: Place beets in a pot of salted boiling water, cover, and simmer until the beets are just tender, from 30 minutes to 11/2 hours.

Microwave: Place 1 pound trimmed beets in a microwaveable dish with 1/2 cup of water. Cover and cook until tender, about 20 minutes.

Steam: Place beets in vegetable steamer over boiling water. Cook until tender, about 30 to 45 minutes.

To check for doneness, pierce with a skewer: When the skewer easily penetrates to the center, the beets are done.

  1. Peel beets while still warm, using a paper towel, plastic wrap, or gloves so your hands don’t get stained.
  2. Cut beets in wedges, slices, cubes, or julienne. If the beets are small, serve whole.

Serving Suggestions: Add wedges to salad with green beans and goat cheese. Toss with herb butter. Make into borscht, a hearty Eastern European soup. Sauté beet greens with garlic and olive oil and serve as a side dish.

Flavor Affinities: Basil, dill, goat cheese, herring, horseradish, orange, potatoes, slow-cooked beef or ham, sour cream, spinach, tarragon, vinegar, yogurt.

from Quirk Books: