BY KURT MICHAEL FRIESE
In June the beets start appearing in gardens and at farmers’ markets, and this is another of those vegetables that is either adored or despised—few people are non-committal about beets. As a child I hated them (and so mom made me eat them all the time), but today they are a favorite.
There are four simple categories of beets: the table beet, the leaf beet, the sugar beet, and the curiously named mangel-wurtzel. This ungainly name translates roughly to “scarcity root.” This does not pertain to being rare, though, for it is indeed prolific and has been prized for being able to grow through droughts and diseases that have killed other root vegetables. Rather it refers to its use as a food when other foods (like those other roots) are scarce. It is primarily animal feed, specifically because it lacks any appeal to the human palate, but is nonetheless useful during times of famine.
The sugar beet had been around for eons, mostly as animal feed, when politics took a hand in advancing its popularity as a source of sugar. The British had blockaded France, cutting it off from all foreign sources of sweetener. So Napoleon Bonaparte, having heard of a development of a process to extract sugar from the variety, ordered 70,000 acres planted. By 1880 beet sugar was more widely consumed throughout Europe than cane sugar. Today it still accounts for about one-third of all the sugar used there, and may gain a resurgence as a source for ethanol, although some recent <a href="/"><img src="/images/header_logo_sm.gif" alt="The Iowa Source" width="280" height="60" border="0" /></a>studies have found that to be of limited value.
Leaf beets are more commonly referred to as chard, and today they come in a wide variety of nearly neon colors. The leaves (which are green while the stems provide the flashy colors) are cultivated and there is not much to the roots. They can be eaten raw but blanched or even braised is usually preferable. A quick blanch in boiling salted water followed by shocking in ice water will bring out the intense color even more for salads and relishes.
Table beets are what most people think of when they think of beets. They are cultivated for their roots (though the leaves are tasty, too) and can range in color from deep red through gold to almost white, including the fascinating “bullseye” pattern of the variety called chiogga. The deep red ones can stain almost anything, even (somewhat alarmingly) urine, but there is no need to be concerned about this.
Root beets can be roasted, peeled or unpeeled, with a little butter or olive oil and some salt and pepper. Cut them into inch-thick wedges, toss with the oil, salt, and pepper, and roast for about 20-30 minutes at 375 degrees F., turning once about halfway through. These are a real treat, hot or cold, when tossed with some blue cheese and fresh toasted walnuts.
The root-vegetable boiling method I’ve mentioned here before also works well for beets. Peel, then dice, slice, or wedge the beets. Place them in a saucepan with enough water to cover by one inch, and add a tablespoon each of butter, salt, and sugar. Bring to a boil, then cover and remove from the heat. Let stand one hour. At this point they’ll be perfectly cooked, tender and delicious as they are or used in other recipes. They keep well, refrigerated in this same liquid, for up to four days.
So do as mom says and eat your beets.
Kurt Michael Friese is co-owner of the Iowa City restaurant Devotay and Editor-in-Chief of the magazine Edible Iowa River Valley. He lives with his wife Kim in rural Johnson County. Comments may be directed to Kurt@EdibleIowaRiverValley.com.