On the face of it, beets are extroverts. Their very veins run magenta, red and gold. The roots come from the same high palette. When the hue is purple or red, which it so often is, then they are not just flamboyant, but inky as an angry octopus.
And yet for all this personality, beets are among the most neglected vegetables in the marketplace. Their reputation is 50 years out of date. People grumble of beet fatigue from Victory Gardens. Others think of beets as canned items. It’s hard to find anyone who studies them. In fact, a convention of U.S. beet experts would be a convention of one. Then there’s the mess. Boil them and the beets stain your hands, your cutting board, your clothes.
No splendor is perfect. But before writing off the beet, bake it. Its color seems to retreat within it, becoming even more saturated, yet more beautiful. Once you’ve tasted a baked beet, it’s hard to have them any other way. It is one of the most arresting flavors to come from the field. Its sweetness can only be surpassed by sugar cane, but then this sweetness is countered by a profound and complex earthiness.
Summed up in a suffix, beets are -er: brighter, sweeter, stronger, darker. Right now, they are at their er-est. Across the country, the shortening days and gradual chill is concentrating their flavor in the field, even before harvest.
This intensity makes it tricky to move on to the beet’s crowning grace, which is--don’t scoff--great subtlety. Faced with other ingredients, beets have a wholly magical tact. They are a superb foil. There is no more accommodating food. Beets complement almost every ingredient that any cook from anywhere can throw at them.
Give it a try. Bake an entire panful. Wash them if they’re cruddy. Cut them about an inch above the stem so the pigment doesn’t run. If they’re medium-size, pop them in the oven at about 375 degrees for an hour and a half. There will be a sweet, toasty almost nutty aroma wafting around the kitchen when they’re done.
You can test for doneness much as you would with a boiled potato, by sticking something sharp into the beets and deciding if that’s the resistance you find palatable (the beet itself is edible raw). Let them cool. Store the ones you’re not going to eat, unpeeled, in Tupperware in the fridge.
Peel the ones you are going to use. The skins should come away fairly easily, if not slipping right off like breezy cookery writers swear they do. First, put them warm or at room temperature in a salad with toasted walnuts, goat cheese, mache and orange. See what happens.
Exactly. The walnuts will never taste nuttier, the chevre never tangier and orange never fruitier. Now try some more pureed with vinegar, sugar and horseradish. You’ll have a classic condiment, called chrain, perfect for meats, or dumplings.
Now try pureeing roast beets into chicken stock to make borscht. Cook beets with star anise, finish them with pastis. Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten hits beets with Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce and capers, and they take it. Whatever you do to them, never for a second do they lose their integrity. Carrots should have such character.
Or flexibility. Beets accept whatever oil is in your larder--olive oil, walnut oil, pine nut oil. They become luminous and satiny in the presence of butter, bright and refreshing with vinegar. Various recipes insist on balsamic vinegar here, cider vinegar there, Sherry vinegar the next breath and raspberry vinegar for yet another concoction. Beets embrace them all with equanimity.
Vegans use beets in lieu of meat; carnivores use them as pungent garnishes for beef. They go equally well with dill, with parsley, with chervil, tarragon or chives. You can bake them like potatoes, serve them slit and buttered. If you’re hungry and want a fast fix and don’t mind the mess, all beets require to constitute a meal are boiling, peeling and, if you’re feeling fancy, the addition of salt and pepper.
They’re that good.
But all this versatility goes unsung. Instead, beets seem to be a cue for jokes about the Cold War and the Catskills, though beets don’t even originate from Russia, Poland or upstate New York. They come from the Mediterranean, where the wild progenitors of today’s domesticated crops grew around the seashore at tide lines.
For insight into the history of beets, horticulture writer Roger Phillips harks back to Aristotle. The late British food writer Jane Grigson preferred Pliny. American food historian William Woys Weaver offers an anecdote about the 6th century Levantine physician Dioscorides. Myself, I give you Irwin Goldman, a beet breeder at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Goldman is the country’s leading authority on the table beet. To be precise, he’s the only authority. The closest California can produce is UC Davis agronomist Stephen Kaffka, whose work as a sugar and fat specialist has largely acquainted him with sugar beets. A clear fan of beets, or as he calls them, “table beets,” he regretfully dismissed the crop as “beneath the radar” of Californian farm science.
Back in Washington, D.C., an interested and entirely tenacious information officer with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service wasn’t even sure that the continental United States had a beet specialist until she ferreted out Goldman. When I left Goldman a message asking if he might talk, he returned the call immediately and cried, “I’d love to! There aren’t enough people who want to talk about beets!”
Table beets, it seems, aren’t much grown commercially anywhere in America. While the U.S. devotes a staggering 1.4 million acres to growing a cousin of theirs, sugar beets, big tough plants fit only for sugar extraction and livestock fodder, Goldman estimates that we grow fewer than 8,000 acres of table beets, more than half of these in Wisconsin for the canning industry.
A depressing statistic.
Part of Goldman’s funding has come to breed seeds for red, redder and reddest table beets to explore the use of their pigments, called betalains, as natural food dyes. Intermittently over the years, beets have been used to color Kool-Aid, Yoplait, Ben & Jerry’s, Jell-O, salami, potato chips and pasta. The red we see in beets is “actually two colors,” Goldman says, “a bluish red, produced by a compound called betacyanin, and then betaxanthin, which is yellow. Bright yellow.”
When we see beets that are gold, they only have yellow pigment. “That doesn’t bleed as much when you cook it,” he says. “It’s not as noticeable.”
The pigment is contained within the plant’s cells, so when we slice it, it spills out. Extreme boiling will turn it brown, so it is best to beware the postwar approach to borscht--just simmer the baked beet root in chicken stock long enough for the flavors to meld, then puree.
Government scientists are busily discovering nifty anti-oxidants in these betalains. Some pass straight through us. How much we retain is unclear. “You aren’t what you eat,” says Goldman, quoting a laboratory aphorism. “You are what you don’t excrete.”
As for the striped beet, an Italian variety called the Chioggia, or “candy” beet in California, the streaks are a genetic fluke, he explains. In these, only the phloem, the part of the plant that conducts sugar created during photosynthesis from the leaves to the root, produces the red beet pigment. The xylem, the water-conducting tissue in a plant, does not have it. So look at a cross-section of a candy beet and the phloem will be pink and the xylem will be white.
Beets weren’t always this lurid, says Goldman. The ones we know were selected over thousands of years by gardeners who fancied the brightest specimens. Romans liked the red ones enough for the vegetable’s alternate name to have been “Roman beet.” Modern chefs tend to claim that superior flavors reside in the gold and striped ones. But Goldman rejects that.
“Flavor has absolutely nothing to do with color,” he says. “It’s completely unrelated.”
Variety can affect flavor. Some chefs commend the turnip-shaped “Egyptian” varieties, others praise classic “globe"-shaped beets. The differences, explains Goldman, have to do with three things: variety, the soil and the climate. He is particularly proud that all beet hybrids in the world have some Wisconsin genes in them. His favorite hybrid is Red Ace, and he waxes on about the charms of the classic types Ruby Queen, Detroit beets, Crosby Green Top and Lutz Green Leaf.
Beets that need better breeding work, he thinks, are the cylindrical types promoted for their ease of peeling and chopping. He studied them as a potential crop for Wisconsin’s beet canning industry and suspects they were bred for shape but not taste.
Size matters too. The younger the beet, the more tender the root and leaves. But in a crop routinely harvested between 45 and 60 days old--that is, never beyond the plant’s juvenile state--tough roots are rarely a problem, says Goldman.
A New Leaf
It’s different with greens. Very baby beet greens sell at herb stalls at Santa Monica farmers market for $7 a pound; just a few feet away at vegetable stalls, most customers want greens chopped off of beets sold for their roots.
The proprietor of the Coastal Organics stall, Santa Paula farmer Paul Carpenter, puts this down to innocence. “Most people are used to buying beets in a can. I don’t think the tops have ever occurred to them,” he says.
These teen greens may be too coarse for salads, but are delicious when treated like cabbage or kale: steamed, stir-fried or, best, sweated in butter, garlic and herbs, then simmered in chicken broth. Cook them as you would another cousin, Swiss chard. Beet greens should be chopped off and eaten separately if you plan to store the roots, which will keep in a cool, dark place much like potatoes.
And so to the cardinal beet flavor, the earthiness that is divine to some, dirty to others. It comes from a compound called geosmin, which is a by-product of certain microorganisms found in soil and vegetables. Beet farmers will say the biggest thing affecting how strong the flavor is isn’t beet variety, but the type of soil.
“That’s logical!” cries Goldman. Peruse the literature on geosmin, and one finds that this lowdown, earthy tang is desirable in beets and corn, less so in catfish or drinking water.
A collection of curious Web sites have sprung up offering beet juice, beet pigment, beet this and beet that as homeopathic remedies. Neither Goldman nor the USDA’s phyto-nutrient specialists would comment on their claims. What is clear is that, between their sweet roots and robust greens, beets are nutritious, particularly as sources of folic acid. To find out just how nutritious, the USDA has a nifty new Web site where you can check out the value of any food: www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp.
On the subject of minerals, chefs remark on the varying salt content in beets. Goldman explains it by saying that wild beets are native to seashores, and are so salt-tolerant that in the wild that they can grow right at tide lines. Farmed varieties can vary wildly in natural salt content. It’s prudent to always taste them while seasoning so as not to overdo it.
A Sensitive Crop
There would be more horticulturalists eager to talk about the beet if it were a big commercial crop. But it’s not. Beet seedlings are sensitive little sprouts. It takes vigilance to protect them from predators. Soon after germination, beet fields require hand thinning. Agri-business long ago wrote the crop off as too labor intensive to merit much industry-sponsored research.
One of Goldman’s colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, horticulture professor Helen Harrison, says industry indifference is actually good for specialty farmers. It protects the market for the little guys. Beet farmers then enjoy a devoted following and a great return from a crop that may require hand-thinning, but ripens fast and produces a great yield per acre.
“If I was a specialty grower, I’d grow them,” she says.
Grow them specialty farmers do, as do home gardeners. (Thompson & Morgan describes it as a “moderately popular” crop, and carries 10 varieties of seeds.) Beets not only appear across the country in farmers markets 45 days after the last frost, they keep on coming right as the last summer plantings are harvested throughout the autumn.
The last of these are taken slowly from cold store throughout the winter.
In Southern California, conditions are such that the season is continuous; beets grow 365 days a year.
Between Los Angeles farmers markets and Southern Californian supermarkets serving large Russian populations, beets and their greens can be found in one form or another most days of the year.
From his office at UC Davis, Kaffka relishes how a Mediterranean crop best appreciated by Russians has found its comfiest geographical niche in Southern California.
“You’re blessed,” he says. “It’s a new definition of blessedness. You can eat beets any time.”