These fresh vegetables are unbeetable

March 05, 1997|By Tina Danze | Tina Danze,UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

Tell Marc Cassel you don't like beets, and you'll end up eating your words. That's what happened to the staff at Dallas' Green Room restaurant, where he is executive chef.

"I made all the cooks eat beets," Cassel says. "I did the same to the waiters."

After sampling his baby beets roasted with olive oil and garlic, even the skeptics converted.

"They wanted more," he says.

Those same baby beets crown his haricot vert-butternut salad -- a popular menu item, beets and all.

"I really don't think there are any [true] beet haters," he says. "It's just in their minds. They remember the beets they had growing up and say, 'I don't like them.' "

Therein lies the root of the problem for many people. Childhood memories of canned beets turn them off for life.

What a pity. With their earthy sweetness and concentrated flavor, fresh roasted beets bear little likeness to the overboiled canned variety. "You get that natural caramelization going on with roasted beets," Cassel says. "It's hard to hate them once you've tried them."

Whether sprinkled with vinegar and herbs as a salad, or served as a side dish to roasted meats or poultry, beets brighten almost any simple menu. But unless you grew up eating fresh beets, you may need a nudge -- and some pointers -- to get cooking.

A beet primer

Here's a quick reference guide on the care and feeding of beets: Store beets dry to prevent rotting; wash them when you're ready to cook them.

If you're not using the greens, trim beet stalks to 2 or 3 inches from the root before storing.

Wrapped loosely, beets keep for about 1 week refrigerated; discard greens after two days.

Never scrub beets. Handle gently; their skin breaks easily and bleeds.

Steam or bake beets unpeeled. Sauteed and stewed beets can be peeled and cut before cooking. Baby beets needn't be peeled.

Cook beets thoroughly, until a sharp knife penetrates with absolutely no resistance.

Remove beet stains from hands by wetting and rubbing with salt, then washing with soap and water. Or, wear plastic gloves when peeling.

Slice large beets, and quarter or halve smaller ones.

Serve beets with the steamed beet greens.

For large beets, brush cooked, thick slices with olive oil, grill and serve with a grinding of coarse salt.

Use beets for salads. Splash with vinegar 30 minutes before adding a little olive oil or vinaigrette: This enhances the beets' flavor.

With a good-tasting vinegar, you may not need any oil on salad beets. Try sherry vinegar, balsamic vinegar or wine vinegar.

If adding beets to salads, toss them in dressing separately, then arrange them on the salad to prevent bleeding onto other ingredients.

Good additions to a beet salad include orange or cucumber slices; chopped chives, dill or mint; goat cheese or Roquefort cheese; and walnuts or toasted pine nuts.

Alternate slices of red and gold beets for color contrast.

Charcoal-roasted beets and red onions

Makes 4 servings

6 small beets, trimmed of all but 1 inch of greens, peel on

2 medium red onions (do not peel)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/3 cup chicken stock

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves (divided use)

salt and pepper to taste

Prepare a moderately hot charcoal fire in a grill unit with a cover. Place beets and red onions in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet and drizzle with the olive oil.

Place the skillet over the fire, cover the grill unit and roast the vegetables at least 1 to 1 1/2 hours, depending on the size of the vegetables. (You may have to leave the beets in a little longer than the onions. The onions should be soft to the touch, and a fork should pierce the beets easily.)

Remove the vegetables from skillet with tongs. Add stock, balsamic vinegar and 1 teaspoon thyme to the skillet and place over high heat. Bring liquid to a boil, scraping the bottom of the skillet, about 4 minutes, or until it's dark, glossy brown and syrupy. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Peel the beets and onions when they're cool enough to handle. Slice the beets into julienne strips and the onions into thin rings. Spoon the liquid over the onions and beets, add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon thyme and toss well to combine. Heat briefly and serve.

Note: Or roast the beets in the skillet in a 400-degree oven.

Per serving: 135 calories; 7 g fat; no cholesterol; 188 mg sodium;

Grated sauteed beets

Makes 6 servings

2 pounds fresh raw beets, tops removed

2 tablespoons butter

salt and freshly ground pepper

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar or raspberry vinegar

Peel and grate beets; you will have about 4 cups. (A food processor works well.)

Melt the butter over moderate heat in a 10-inch frying pan, add the beets and toss to coat with butter. Toss again with 1/2 teaspoon salt, some pepper and the vinegar. Then add 1/4 inch of water. Cover and cook about 10 minutes, tossing occasionally, until the beets are tender and the liquid has evaporated. (Add more drops water if needed during cooking.) Toss with more butter, if you wish, adjust seasonings and serve.

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