A few weeks ago I attended a chef’s potluck dinner in Northern California. Everyone who was asked to bring a vegetable dish brought a salad of red and golden beets, as did I. Last week in New York, one of the most interesting dishes I ate was, you can guess, a beet salad at Mario Batali’s restaurant Babbo.
Are beets replacing tomatoes as the vegetable of summer? I hardly think so, but these incidents do say something about the possibilities of beets as a warm-weather vegetable that warrants a second look. Or maybe a first one.
Like many foods that we think of as winter storage vegetables (turnips and cabbage), beets in fact are at their prime at this time of year. It’s hard to imagine a farmers market right now that isn’t filled with mounds of red, golden and Chioggia beets, their dense, leafy greens every bit as tasty as the roots.
The beet is a terrific hot-weather vegetable, yet people resist it. Partly it’s because we just don’t think of beets now. But it’s also because of their taste, the sometimes too-forceful way they combine sweetness with extreme earthiness.
But when beets are treated to the cooling acidic nip of vinegar and lemon, their flavor extremes are joined into an easier-to-like whole. Their silky texture, their jewel-like colors and the fact that they’re delicious served cold make them a great choice.
Although beets used to be thought of as only red, they come in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes.
Probably the most popular of these “new beets” is the Chioggia (pronounced key-OH-ja), also known as a bull’s-eye or candy-stripe beet because of the way its flesh is ringed in concentric circles of red and white. With its orange-red skin tinged with shades of scarlet, the Chioggia is a gorgeous beet, a little flatter than most, and generally one that flourishes in cooler weather.
The sunny golden beet is also a very pretty vegetable, with thick leathery-looking leaves that are deceptively tender. It has a milder flavor than most red beets, and the color doesn’t bleed the way red does. (Farmers seem to be having a hard time with this variety this year, so they’re not quite as plentiful as they have been in other years.)
To keep their colors translucent and pure, steam golden and Chioggia beets. Roasting them rather muddies the colors.
When it comes to red beets, keep your eyes open for the Mangle and Lutz varieties. These are truly gigantic vegetables whose stems are about 2 feet long before the leaves open out, but they’re very juicy and wonderfully balanced when it comes to flavor.
At the other extreme are the Dutch baby varieties such as Pronto and Kleine Bol (meaning “little ball”). The ultra-dark long beets, like Cylindra, are convenient for cutting lots of similar-size slices.
When you can, buy beets with their greens attached. They don’t necessarily guarantee goodness, but they are mild and delicious and don’t take long to cook to tenderness.
Use them like spinach and chard. To cook them, discard yellow or bruised leaves, then wilt the good ones in a skillet with some olive oil and a sliver of garlic.
Madison is author of “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone” (Broadway, 1997).