Beets have never been a sexy food. They bring up images of someone's bubbe stirring borscht — the hearty beet soup hailing from Eastern Europe. Although many people shun these bulbous roots, I have always loved beets for their brilliant garnet color and their assertively sweet taste.
Blessed with more sucrose than any other vegetable, beets have recently caught the attention of chefs, who are showcasing them in appetizers and side dishes.
When I was growing up, I thought beets came from cans. Today, bunches of beets can be purchased at gourmet stores, farmer's markets and even at local supermarkets. They are in season May through October. I suggest purchasing beets with their stems and chard-like leaves attached. Still, in a pinch, canned beets are tasty, and can be used instead of fresh in most recipes.
Jewish culinary history has been enriched by these tough-looking roots. In northern Europe, beets were one of the few vegetables available throughout harsh winters. Along with cabbage, beets were boiled in soups and pickled galore.
Our Ashkenazi ancestors ate beet greens in salads during the summer. But they stored their fleshy roots in cellars for use during the cold months ahead. Beets were also fermented in earthenware crocks to make brine, which was then used to perk up horseradish and kugels. These days, many people prefer glass jars of magenta, beet-sweetened horseradish over plain horseradish, a taste that's so much sharper.
Not to be outdone, Sephardi Jews also favor beets. They prepare them in salads and soups. They're also found in Middle Eastern pickle dishes, where they add a pink hue to other veggies.
Sephardi Jews tend to prepare beets with a tangier zing than the sweet-and-sour flavor that Ashkenazi Jews crave. They incorporate beet leaves in cooked dishes and salads, rarely seasoning them with dill and sour cream in the style of the Ashkenazi.
Because beets are both old and new again, isn't it time to give them a chance? Try them on your table this holiday season.
Note: Because fresh beets gush with natural red dye, wear surgical gloves (purchased where toiletries are sold) when preparing them to avoid staining your hands.
(Dairy or Pareve)
nonstick vegetable spray
2 bunches of large beets, with leaves attached
4 Tbsps. olive oil
kosher salt to taste
4 Tbsps. sour cream, optional accompaniment
2 Tbsps. fresh minced dill for garnish
Preheat oven to 250°.
Coat a 9×13-inch ovenproof casserole with nonstick spray.
Wearing surgical gloves, cut off beet tops (leaves). Reserve them for the Sautéed Beet Tops recipe below. Beet leaves are also delicious as greens in salads.
Rinse beet bulbs under cold water and scrub them with a brush to remove surface dirt. Peel off the outer skin. Cut off roots and remainders of the leaf stems. Slice beets into quarters.
Place beet quarters into the prepared casserole. Drizzle oil over top and sprinkle with salt. Using a spoon, turn over beets to evenly distribute the oil and salt.
Place the casserole inside the oven. Turn beets every 15 minutes. Bake for 75 to 90 minutes, or until the beets are soft when pierced with a knife point.
(You can serve these hot, cold or at room temperature.)
Place beet quarters in a circle around the edge of a plate. Spoon sour cream, if using, into the center of the plate. Sprinkle the dill over the sour cream and beets.
Sautéed Beet Tops
beet leaves from 1 bunch of beets
2 Tbsps. olive oil
6 cloves garlic, minced
kosher salt to taste
Cut off the beet stems from the leaves and discard.
Rinse the leaves under cold water to remove any dirt. Pat dry on paper towels.
In a large skillet, briefly heat the olive oil on a medium flame.
Sauté the garlic in the oil for 1 to 2 minutes, until softened, but not browned.
Add the beet leaves in 2 to 3 batches, stirring constantly.
Lightly salt each new batch.
Continue adding batches until all of the leaves are in the skillet. Stir well until leaves wilt.
1 bunch of beets
1 package (5 oz.) of baby lettuces
1 green apple
1/4 cup pecans, chopped
4 oz. of goat cheese
Wearing surgical gloves, cut off beet tops (leaves) and reserve for salads or to sauté.
Rinse beet bulbs under cold water and scrub them with a brush to remove surface dirt.
Peel off the outer skin. Cut off roots and remainders of leaf stems. Dice beets into bite-sized pieces.
In a medium-sized pot, simmer the diced beets for 35 to 40 minutes, or until softened when pierced with a knife point. Drain in a colander and cool to room temperature.
Rinse the baby lettuce under cold water. Spin in a salad spinner. Distribute lettuces evenly on four salad plates. Peel the green apple. Cut into thin slices, discarding the seeds and core.
Place 1/4 of the apple slices over the lettuces on each plate. Sprinkle pecans evenly over top.
Onto each salad, dollop a 1/2-teaspoon-sized piece of goat cheese.
Drizzle your favorite vinaigrette over the top.
(Note: This dish is pareve if you don't use the goat cheese.)
Blushing Turnip Pickles
While Jews throughout the Middle East and North Africa adore pickled vegetables, this seasoning is typically North African. Pickled vegetables are traditionally served in tiny bowls along with an assortment of appetizers. But they are simply delicious as a snack.
31/2 cups cold water
1 cup white vinegar
21/2 Tbsps. kosher salt
8 coriander seeds
15 allspice berries
4 garlic cloves, skinned and cut in half lengthwise
1 lb. white turnips
2 quart-sized canning jars with rings and lids
In a medium-sized saucepan, place the water, vinegar, kosher salt, coriander seeds, allspice berries and garlic.
Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally until salt dissolves. Remove from the heat and cool to warm.
Meanwhile, peel off the outer skin from the turnips and rinse them under cold water. Slice turnips into circles 1/4-inch thick. Cut each circle at right angles into four equal pieces. Reserve.
Remove the stem and roots from the beet. Scrape off the outer skin. Rinse under cold water to remove any remaining dirt. Place on a paper towel.
Layer the turnips and beets inside the canning jars.
Carefully pour the pickling brine, including the coriander, allspice and garlic into the canning jars.
When the brine has cooled to room temperature, cover the jars and leave them on a kitchen counter for 24 hours.
Refrigerate the jars for three to four weeks before eating the pickles.
Pickles should be stored in the refrigerator once the jars have been opened. They will last for about three months.
Makes 2 quarts of pickles.
Linda Morel is a writer based in New York City. E-mail her at: [email protected].