Beets are back

Don't think cans, think fresh salads and chilled soup

(Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun…)
July 24, 2013|By Susan Reimer, The Baltimore Sun

Chef Scott Ryan might be the rare person who did not have a scarring experience with beets as a child.

The instructor at Baltimore's Stratford University culinary school was on his honeymoon in Paris when he and his wife packed a picnic that included beets marinated in fresh fennel, lemon and olive oil.

It was love at first bite.

"I think that many people have bad experiences with food — canned this or canned that — and they don't understand its true nature," said Ryan. "Beets fall into that category."

Fleet Street Kitchen's Chris Amendola's parents hated beets. "We never had them in the house," said the chef, who has several beet dishes on his menu. "I wasn't until I was working in restaurants that I even had any."

Even President Barack Obama has a problem with beets, so they were left out of the planting of the first White House vegetable garden.

"Anyone who knows beets from a can is fully justified in not liking them," said Martha Rose Shulman, who contributes healthy recipes to The New York Times.

Beets are emerging from those cans and finding their way onto the menus of fine restaurants and into the baskets of home cooks trolling farmers' markets for something new.

Donna Crivello might have been among the first to offer beets in her signature roasted vegetable salad, a mainstay at Donna's since it opened more than two decades ago.

"When I started roasting vegetables, I was just roasting whatever I saw," said Crivello. "The roasting brings out the flavor and the sugar in the beets."

Though they are most often served in salads, with spicy greens, savory cheese and the crunch of nuts, Crivello served beet ravioli to guests on Valentine's Day — it was all about the red — and beets with grilled salmon is on her menu now.

Even beet greens are finding favor. Crivello uses them to dress her ravioli and her fish. "People are willing to try them," she said, "like they have been willing to try kale and collards."

Shulman, who is based in Los Angeles and has a healthy eating website, said people often ask farmers to cut off the greens, "but that's a terrible waste."

She likes to strip the leaves off the stem and saute or blanch them with olive oil and perhaps garlic, just like Swiss chard, its cousin. Amendola likes to dehydrate the greens for garnish.

The history of beets is as colorful as the deep red, gold or pink stripe of the root.

They were first grown only for the greens, as a salad crop. But as they moved north from their home in the Mediterranean, they were cultivated for their swollen root so they could be stored in winter.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the French dictator was looking for an alternate source of sugar because the supply of sugar cane had been cut off by the British blockades, and he offered a 10,000-franc prize. The result was the sugar beet with high levels of sucrose.

Beets made their way to the New World with European settlers, but they were saddled with a reputation as peasant food, most often boiled into a strange, purple soup called borscht.

"It is amazing how versatile they have become," said Ryan, whose goal is to get his students to explore foods, like beets or Brussels sprouts, that have a poor reputation. One of his favorite ways is to serve them is as a roasted puree over cardamom ice cream.

"But I like a good, old-fashioned beet salad," he said. "It is a late-summer sweet treat."

Beets are easy to prepare and Shulman keeps some ready in her refrigerator. She roasts them in a hot oven in a covered casserole with a half an inch of water. The skin slides off easily after the beets cool. They can keep for several days for use in a salad or as a snack on their own.

Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen has focused his restaurant's menu on the local agricultural scene, and beets are a part of that. But he's another one who had a bad experience with beets as a child.

"I got pickled beets confused with spiced apple rings, and I was so disappointed," he said. "But I got over it, and I love them."

He focuses on beet recipes in the fall and winter, he said, when his choices for fresh produce start to dwindle. Thanks to hoop houses, as well as beets' preference for cooler weather, they are essentially a year-round crop.

"I love the meatiness of beets in cold weather," said Gjerde, who first cooked with beets when he and his brother had Spike and Charlie's. "I remember the first time we got a chioggia beet. I thought it was the coolest thing, these beautiful pink striped beets."

When asked if his guests have taken to beets as enthusiastically has he has, Gjerde said yes, but added, "My brother. He may be the last guy to like beets."

Donna Crivello's grilled salmon with a salad of beets, beet greens and wheat berries

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