Monday, April 5, 2010
Beet the Blues
Beets are as wonderful to eat as they are as fun a word to say. I feel that they are one of the most under-appreciated foods--they have a wonderful texture (firm, with a slight crunch), a tart-yet-sweet taste, and are wildly nutritious. There are few occasions when the beet is out of place, from a soup to a stew to braising and roasting for salads and sides, and yet so many people fear the beet like they do other root vegetables, from turnips to rutabagas. Perhaps it is the weird names? All I know is, these folks are missing out.
Vronsky is one of them. Even though I've probably eaten them in nearly every iteration in front of him, in at least three different countries (beets are a very cosmopolitan produce), he will never try my beets. I don't know what it is with him and other beet naysayers...to healthy? Too colorful? To tasty? It puzzles me and makes me sad, because something so simple as beets on my salad will make my day. Perhaps I need some more thrills in life...
Beets are a staple of many "northern" folk diets. Beet soup is a cornerstone of traditional Russian, Polish and many Nordic meals, and along with cabbage, are one of the few vegetables that will last and nourish one throughout the long Russian winter. Beets, cabbages, and onions will literally provide the body with all it needs, preventing nasty things like scurvy and vitamin deficiency in the winter months, and are much more enjoyable than sucking on lemon slices like they would do on those olden-day sailing ships to prevent those same ailments. There is also a very funny reference to beet soup in David Benioff's excellent book City of Thieves, which also involves a search for eggs, and is a fabulous, poignant, honest look at the infamous siege of Leningrad and partisan warfare. Plus, one of the main characters, Kolya, is one of the most charming literary figures I've come across in a long time. (If you can't tell, I've been on a huge Russophilic kick lately, beets included).
Beets have a very high level of anti-carcinogens and are loaded with antioxidants and help prevent certain types of cancer, especially colon, and may even help prevent birth defects due to their high level of folic acid. They also help increase the oxygen-carrying capability of your blood, something helpful to all you athletes out there, especially endurance athletes (cyclists, triathletes, runners, swimmers, etc.) This is because the iron found in beets, although not in huge quantities, is of the highest quality, and therefore, the most efficient for your body to put to good use. Learn more about how beets benefit your body here in addition to being delicious.
But enough about the health benefits. Beets are damn tasty too, hence the basis of their gastronomical appeal. As the beet is a very hardy food and has such a special flavor, they are a favorite of chefs around the world. I even remember Richard Blais on "Top Chef" using beets during the challenge where the little kids had to help them cook. His kid, who was initially intimidated by said beets, loved the taste from first bite and bragged to all her school chums during the actual meal service that she had chopped the beets all by herself after they were roasted. Richard Blais thought it was so cute how she acted like she had been eating beets all her life and was a true beet aficionado.
Beets are most popular when roasted. When you find beets on your salad (usually with some goat cheese and a vinaigrette), or as a side, they will be roasted. In Germany, they like to pickle them, but roasted is my personal favorite, and also the easiest to make at home (in my mind).
How to roast your beets (and use the greens too):
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Wash your beets thoroughly, leaving the skin on, and remove the greens on top. Rinse the greens and set aside.
Toss your beets with two tablespoons of olive oil, or enough to coat, depending on the size and quantity of beets. Then, place the beets in a small roasting pan or baking dish. The beets are easier to peel once they have been roasted, and it helps keep them moist.
Cove, and bake for 45 minutes to an hour, until a knife slides easily through your largest beet.
When the beets are almost roasted, take some more olive oil, heat in a skillet over medium/low heat along with some garlic and onions and cook until onions are almost clear. Then, tear your beet greens into 2-3 inch pieces and add to skillet until they begin to wilt/go tender. Remove from heat, slice up your now perfectly roasted beets and enjoy with either a bit of red wine vinegar, or salt and fresh pepper, or even with a bit of rosemary or thyme.
For a slightly different variation, you can toss your beets with a bit of salt and pepper and garlic, along with the olive oil, prior to roasting and then drizzle with balsamic vinegar once done but prior to serving. I think this makes them a bit too garlicky, but it is up to you. Either way, a wonderful and unique spring side dish!