How To Embrace the Beet This Spring

Ancient Greeks considered the beet to be an aphrodisiac, and while that may be debatable, there’s so much to love about Aphrodite’s favourite food.

By Cinda Chavich

OloBeetsOLO’s beet salad is a marriage of roasted and fresh beets, watercress, endive, fresh cheese and a colourful beet sorbet. PHOTO: JEFFREY BOSDET

There’s no getting around it — in the waning days of winter, buying fresh, local vegetables is a challenge.

Then again, we always have root vegetables to get us through until the first flush of fresh greens and spring asparagus appears in the market. And for me, that means embracing
the beet.

The beet is an interesting outlier in the vegetable world. Originally grown for its tender greens, the bulbous beetroot has a sweet and earthy flavour, something you
either love or loathe.

But before you turn up your nose, consider the upside of this humble root. That deep red juice that stains your hands when you peel a bunch of beets is their unique calling card. It’s what gives a bowl of borscht its brilliant garnet hue and what makes beets so incredibly good for you. Betalains — the phytonutrients that give beets their dark red colour — put beets on the health-food greatest-hits list. They are rich in potassium, folic acid and fibre too. Some studies even suggest the ruby red juice of the beet can reduce blood pressure, increase stamina and fight cancer.

Beets are Big Chef Favourites

Beyond the red Detroit beet, we can now routinely find sweet, locally grown yellow beets or Italian Chioggia beets, with their pretty pink and white concentric circles. Though they don’t have the same nutrients as the red beet, yellow beets, like other yellow and orange-fleshed vegetables, contain beta-carotene and vitamins and are milder in flavour than red beets.

And, in the hands of today’s creative chefs, a beet is a beautiful thing. You can’t open a local menu without bumping into a beet or two.

OLO makes a refreshing beet salad with fresh cheese, walnuts, cress and raspberry-beet sorbet. The chefs at Part and Parcel combine golden beets with persimmon, bitter radicchio, feta and tahini sauce. At Nourish, the roasted beet and carrot soup is flavoured with spicy harissa and drizzled with cashew cream, while warm beets and lentils are served with shaved fennel, apple and poppy-seed sauce.

Be Love recognizes the healthy and colourful beauty of beets, whether they’re rolled into nori with brown rice, avocado and burdock in the Vitality Roll, or added to the steamy quinoa Macrobiotic Bowl or a rejuvenating Earth Blood Tonic.

The chefs at AURA have served me an elegant Yukon Gold potato and aged cheddar perogy, garnished with golden beets and a dusting of dehydrated red beet powder, and a sweet beet broth with pickled golden beet, a red beet marshmallow, and a swirl of dill-infused cream.

At the other end of the culinary scale, one of my favourite food trucks takes beets into gourmet fast-food territory. DeadBeetz tops its signature Beatrice free-range beef burger with slabs of house-pickled beets, a shockingly simple but effective combination.

Or you can visit the local Ukrainian Cultural Centre, as I often do, for the baba-made borscht and perogies, and the annual Borscht Festival that lets you taste a variety of family borscht recipes created by competitive home cooks.

Best Ways to Buy, Prepare and Serve Beets

The fact that we can grow beets across Canada and store them long into the winter means they’re available nearly year-round, which is another reason they’re an enduring staple on local menus.

Buy young beets with the fresh tops attached or older beets throughout the winter. Beets can be stored for a month in the crisper of your refrigerator, or you can precook and freeze them to use later. If you’ve harvested your own beets in the fall, they can be kept for several months, buried in sand, in a wooden box, in a cold root cellar or garage.

Steaming is the easiest way to cook beets. You don’t even need to peel them — simply cut off the beet tops (saving them for salads or sautées), snip the long root ends, then scrub the beets and steam them whole in a saucepan. When the beets are tender, rinse them under cold running water to remove the skins.

Roasting is another simple solution that really concentrates the sugars in beets and intensifies their flavour. Just scrub them, drizzle them with a little olive oil and salt, wrap loosely in foil and bake in a 375°F oven until tender (about 45 to 60 minutes for a medium or large beet). Then you can easily slip off the skins and quarter or slice the beets for side dishes or salads.

Serving Up Your Beets In a Delicious Way

Small steamed or roasted beets can be served whole, simply tossed with a little butter, sea salt and black pepper. A bit of minced fresh dill is also beautiful with beets.

Try slicing the beets while warm — especially the pretty Chioggia beets with their concentric pink and white circles — and drizzling them with a little white balsamic vinegar or fresh lemon juice. The acid lightly pickles the beets, and you can serve them hot, at room temperature or even chilled.

Another idea? Make crispy beet chips. Simply peel, slice thin, toss with olive oil and bake for 20 to 30 minutes at 350°F.

Blue cheese and beets are a match made in heaven. Top a green salad with chopped, roasted beets and crumbled Stilton, or layer sliced roasted beets with creamy Gorgonzola and sliced pears in a stacked salad drizzled with a sweet vinaigrette.

Citrusy dressings made with olive oil, orange juice, Dijon mustard and sea salt bring out the best in beets. This combination is perfect with golden yellow beets.

Creamy sour-cream sauces infused with horseradish, mustard, minced green onion or fresh mint are also perfect to drizzle over warm beets. Or shred roasted red beets and combine with Greek yogurt, garlic and dill for a fuchsia pink tzatziki to serve alongside grilled lamb kebabs.

Recipes With Beets

For a warm side dish or condiment, slow cook red onions in olive oil with balsamic vinegar until thick and syrupy, then toss with diced roasted beets for a warm side dish or condiment (best if chilled overnight and reheated).

A classic beet and vegetable soup, or borscht, is what I tell kids is my “purple soup.” Swirl some fresh sour cream in at the end to create a lovely fuchsia mixture. Or for an elegant dinner party starter, whirl your beet soup up in the food processor to create a smooth purée, then add sweet or sour cream to make a pretty pink sipper, served warm or chilled in little white coffee cups with a bit of sautéed sweet cabbage or a sprig of dill.

Beets marry well with beef. Use beef broth or bones in your borscht, shred a little raw beet into your meatloaf mixture or sauté up a classic Red Flannel Hash with chopped potatoes, beets, onions, garlic and corned beef, and top with poached eggs for breakfast.

Apples, ginger and beets make a healthy morning juice or smoothie. Or consider a cocktail of prairie Crown Royal rye with beet juice and rhubarb bitters.

Some cooks even like to hide healthy shredded beets in chocolate cakes or use a purple beet purée in place of the typical food colouring for their red velvet pancakes.

There’s good reason why the beet, blessed with beauty, flavour and a host of healthful benefits, continues to evoke love from chefs and food lovers alike.

This article is from the March/April 2018 issue of YAM.