If you grew up during the 80s or earlier, we probably share similar offensive experiences during our initial close encounters of the beet kind. Whether they snuck into your buffet plate from the salad bar, were the vegetable part of a meal package deal on school, hospital or military mess hall trays or your elders tried to casually and deviously slip them onto the family table, they all came from the same place: a dusty can from the pantry shelf. They were rubbery, smelled funny and didn't taste quite right. The result: many of us despised the root vegetable for years.
This unfortunate canned vegetable consumption turned many folks off to produce. Canned corn was mushy, canned peas were even more so, canned mushrooms were slimy and all green vegetables had that drab olive cast and unpleasantly pungent flavor that results from overlooking. Does anyone else remember canned Veg All? This concoction was comprised of water-packed potatoes, carrots, Lima beans and, if my aging memory serves correctly, celery. These vegetables were all so overcooked that one could no longer distinguish any individual flavors other than the added salt. In the words of Alton Brown, not good eats!
Well, folks, it's time to get fresh with your vegetables. Today, most home cooks have embraced the bold colors, tasty flavors, crisp textures and every nutrient that fresh vegetables have to offer. Today's broccoli delivers a satisfying crunch and appealing emerald hue when steamed for two minutes. Green beans are blanched for just moments before their rendezvous with a bowl of ice water to cease the cooking process. Vegetables are roasted until their edges are delicately caramelized and the flavor nuances reach new heights. We are finally taking vegetables where no beet has gone before. With the array of fresh produce that now abounds in our farm stands and markets, combined with today's enthusiasm for cooking and for making healthier choices in our food consumption, canned vegetables need to follow in the footsteps of the dinosaurs.
The above digression was necessary for telling the tale of the common garden beet. The moral of the story will be evident in this post's concluding paragraph. You see, beets are not the rubbery maroon discs or strips whose image stayed etched in our memory banks for all of those years. That was not a proper introduction to the humble beet. Fresh beets are bulbous-shaped root vegetables, harvested from the soil by long, leafy stems. Their most popular hue is a deep garnet red, but they are also available in golden yellow as well as with a creamy white flesh striped with deep pink concentric rings. The stalks of leaves are typically removed immediately after purchase to prolong the shelf life of the beet during storage.
My preferred method for preparing beets is to peel a combination of red and gold beets with a vegetable peeler, lob off the tough end from which the stalks had grown and cut them into wedges, quarters for smaller beets, sixths for medium-sized ones and eighths for larger specimens. I deposit the cut beets into a roasting pan, toss them with extra-virgin olive oil, sprinkle liberally with sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper and pop the into a 450-degree oven to roast for 25-30 minutes. The two-toned result adds a gorgeous, vibrant pop of fall color to the dinner plate. The texture is tender, but with a slight yield and the flavor is subtly sweet and earthy.
As your foodie friend, I feel it's only fair to pass along two warnings for the before and after phases of beet consumption. Before eating them, they should be peeled and they need to be diced, sliced or cut into wedges. Beet juice has an amazing dying power. It is used as a natural food coloring as well as for some red garment dyes. It will stain any linen and porous surface that it comes in contact with. Wear something that you aren't too fond of and, because skin is not at all impervious to the beet's dying effects, purchase a box of latex or other surgical-style gloves to keep on hand for beet preparation. Process the beets on a dishwasher-safe plastic cutting board instead of your prized bamboo or Boos wooden board that you proudly display on the counter. Keep all kitchen towels out of reach and make sure that the cut beets or the peelings never touch your natural stone material countertop. Metals and glass are fine, your knife and roasting pan will be as good as new after washing. Now for the aftermath: no one ever wants to discuss these matters, but let's keep it light and stay with me on this, it could save you from a health insurance claim squabble. So you had beets last night. The next day, sometime after that morning java, nature calls on you to make the daily offering to the porcelain throne. You happen to glance downward as you reach for the flusher handle and your heart immediately starts to pound in panic. Enough said, you have now been forewarned. This is not the time to frantically dial your proctologist. Similar alarming visual effects may also evoke the notion of either calling your urologist or imbibing gluttonous quantities of water or cranberry juice. Please refer back a few sentences: beet dye is pervasive. Once your system has completed the digestion of said beets, you'll be right as rain once again.
So how do I feel about beets now? I love them. How did I evolve past the aversion? Several years ago, I was browsing a culinary magazine in search of an interesting vegetable course for the Thanksgiving table. I came across a recipe that called for roasting the beets with a few other vegetables. Ask any toddler with picture books, visual aids work wonders. The publication's glossy photograph made them appear completely different and a lot more savory than what I had previously been exposed to. When I sampled that first bite on Thanksgiving Day, it was an epiphany. This was not the same beet that I had wanted to gag on many years earlier. Tasting is believing, however, so for those of you who remain unconvinced, I urge you to try the basic roasting method described above, or this warm beet salad or the following recipe and see for yourself why you should never trust a dusty can and you should always get fresh with your vegetables.
Herb Roasted Vegetable Medley
2 red beets, peeled and cut into sixths
2 gold beets, peeled and cut into sixths
2 turnips, peeled and cut into sixths
1 large parsnip, peeled and thickly sliced crosswise
3 Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into sixths
6 garlic cloves, peeled
4 shallots, peeled and halved lengthwise
1/3 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons minced fresh sage
Freshly cracked black pepper
Premium quality balsamic vinegar
Preheat oven to 450-degrees. Place all cut vegetables, garlic and shallots in a roasting pan. Add the oil, sage, a generous sprinkle of salt and pepper. Toss until all vegetables are evenly coated with the oil, sage, salt and pepper. Roast for 30 minutes, stirring the vegetables once halfway through cooking time. Remove from the oven and immediately apply a light drizzle of the balsamic vinegar. Serves six.
Food for Thought
In addition to freshly harvested local beets, farm stands are soon to be brimming with Brussels sprouts, apples, butternut and acorn squashes and heads of cauliflower in various striking colors such as purple, lime green and golden yellow. Visit your local farm stand today and then try my roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon and hazelnuts.