The Beet Generation The new craze for the fresh root

October 14, 1998|By Cathy Thomas | Cathy Thomas,Orange County Register

Eye-popping magentas. Glorious yellows. Even striped like a peppermint lollipop.

Beets are delectable, bulb-shaped wonders. Artistic root vegetables.

Lots of kids hate them. Weird, they say. But I've converted too many beet bigots to be daunted by childhood palate prejudice.

Beet appreciation is something that flourishes with proper exposure. Not the overboiled, tin-canny kind. But fresh beets, brimming with earthy sweetness. Roasted, baked or grilled, they're irresistible.

Flavorwise, they're kind of a cross between a sweet carrot and an earthy wild mushroom. Colorwise, they're a feast for the eye.

Fresh beets are hip. Showcased in salads, soups, side dishes and risottos, they're showing up on trendy restaurant menus across the country.

Preparation: There are several ways to cook beets. Whichever technique you choose, start with the same routine. Cut off stalks no less than 2 inches from the root. It's important to leave some stalk to prevent bleeding. Gently wash beets. Don't scrub beets vigorously; it might break the skin and cause bleeding. Leave them unpeeled for cooking. When they are cool enough to handle, slip off the peels.

Beets take some time to cook, especially if they're large. But these root beauties can be prepared in advance, peeled and refrigerated for several days.

Roasting: Rub beets with a smidgen of olive oil and sprinkle with a little kosher salt. Place in a single layer on a roasting pan. Bake in a 350-degree oven. Test for doneness (tenderness) by piercing with the point of a knife. Roasting times vary, depending on size, from 30 to 70 minutes.

Baking: There are two ways to bake beets. Wrap beets, not more than three to a packet, in heavy-duty aluminum foil. Bake in a 400-degree oven. Or place beets in a single layer on a roasting pan and add about one-half inch of water; cover pan with aluminum foil and seal edges. Bake in a 375-degree oven.

Test for doneness by piercing with the point of a knife. Baking times vary, depending on size, from 30 to 70 minutes.

Steaming: Set beets in a steaming basket, cover and steam until tender, about 35-55 minutes, depending on size.

Grilling: Not a speedy technique, but very delicious. Place beets in a large, cast-iron skillet and drizzle them with olive oil. The skillet will keep in moisture. Slow grilling will impart a slight smoky flavor. The beets need a long time to cook because they are so dense. Cook over moderately hot charcoal fire and cover with barbecue lid. Cook 1 to 1 1/2 hours. (See recipe for Charcoal-Roasted Beets and Red Onions.)

Beet partners: Some folks think that butter and salt are a cooked beet's best friend. But cooked beets pair beautifully with vinaigrettes, too. Use beets-with-a-vinegar-spark in salads or as an accompaniment to pate or prosciutto.

Alice Waters, founder and proprietor of Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., suggests cooked beets with some of these acid accents in her book "Chez Panisse Vegetables" (HarperCollins, 1996, $32.50): cooked beets with sherry or balsamic vinaigrette with blood oranges and mache (a gourmet green); cooked beets with balsamic vinegar, shallots and toasted walnuts; cooked beets with sherry vinegar, orange zest, fresh tarragon and a little minced garlic.

The flavor and color combination of mangoes and beets is a knockout. Make a dressing with a pureed mango base and boost the flavors with some hot curry powder and honey.

Toss the cooked beets with the vinaigrette, serve them over mixed greens and garnish with mango slices. It's a wonderful first course when serving an Asian-derived or tropical main dish.

Other ingredients that pair well with beets include yogurt, sour cream, parsley, dill, cilantro, onions and apples.

Rice, too. Red beets turn risotto, the classic rice dish of Northern Italy, a striking intense pink. Serve it as a first course to an entree of roast chicken scented with garlic and fresh herbs.

Ah, it's enough to fire up some real beet passion. So if you thought you'd sworn off beets for life, you might reconsider your game plan. Be part of the beet generation.

Beet appreciation is something that flourishes with proper exposure. Here are a few recipes to try.

Charcoal Roasted Beets and Red Onions

Makes 4 side-dish servings

6 small fresh beets, trimmed of all but 2 inches of greens (about 1 1/2 pounds trimmed weight) and unpeeled

2 medium red onions, unpeeled

2 tablespoons olive oil, extra-virgin preferred

1/3 cup chicken broth

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 that has a cover.

Place beets and red onions in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet and drizzle with olive oil. Place skillet over fire and cover the grill unit, and roast the vegetables 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.

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