Beeting Expectations: Surprising and Delicious Ways to Use Beets
Few vegetables are harder-put than the humble beta vulgaris. Many people seem to have been put off these homely roots in their formative years, and even as adults old prejudices or lame excuses about cooking times or staining properties keep us away. For shame, because beets are some of the finest cold-weather gems, both in terms of their nutritional quality and flavor. Uniquely imbued with their own class of antioxidant phytonutrients, beets are rich in B vitamins and manganese. Additionally, for better or worse, red beets are fantastic sources of natural reddish-purple pigment. Shredded or mashed, beets also make a fantastic addition to baked goods, supplying moisture and an earthy sweetness that is delicious on its own or in conjuction with other earthy flavors like chocolate and coffee. So regardless of whether you enjoy them on their own or include them in your favorite foods, don’t give up on beets. Here are a myriad of traditional and more unusual ways to include these phenomenal superfoods in your diet.
Front and center, beets are an easy option. They’re edible both raw and cooked, indeed their B vitamin content is higher when they are raw. Like many root vegetables, they mellow in flavor with heat and really respond well to roasting, but their raw bite can be a virtue when you pair them with creamy dressings or cheeses.
The best way to enjoy them cooked is roasted or glazed. Since their juice is so rich in sugars, it will caramelize readily with or without oil, but a little salt and sugar don’t hurt. You can be creative in your use of sugary ingredients – balsamic vinegar or maple syrup or honey add their own particular quality to the final product. Baked, they are tender like new potatoes; roasted or broiled they become crisp and take on the best qualities of carefully burnt caramel – just make sure not to overcook them at either temperature or they can be chewy or overly bitter.
One often-overlooked flavor is that of pickled beets. A little mellower than raw slices, with the added flavor of sugar, salt and vinegar, they are fantastic additions to salads or nestled in a sandwich. In some restaurants, they even server as the centerpiece of a vegetarian or vegan sandwich, taking the place of sandwich meats through their similar substantial character. To make your own you need only dissolve a little sugar in some cider vinegar and add thin slices of steamed or baked beets. The simplest version is just a little salt, pepper, and mustard; beets also take well to the sweet and spicy flavors of India and the Middle East, or a little horseradish for the flavors of Eastern Europe.
No article on beets would be complete without two of the most famous beet recipes: Borscht and Red Flannel Hash. The former is a unique take on beef stew with more flavor and a lighter character despite the typical inclusion of fatty beef and sour cream. All you need is a quart or two of beef stock, chunks of stew meat, and a pound or two of beets and potatoes. If you have it on hand, dill is a natural addition in either seed or leaf form. In these cold days, it’s quite nice to have something with substance and a fresher flavor than the typical hearty winter stews.
Red Flannel Hash is a perfect weekend brunch or dinner recipe, as well as a great use of leftovers. Like with borscht, the flavor of the beets helps to liberate a simple fry-up of potatoes and beef from the doldrums of ‘typical fare’. Even if you’re not trying to feed a crowd, it’s great for those extra chunks of meat or veg that would otherwise eventually end up in a trash can.
If you don’t feel like tackling them directly, beets can play a wide range of roles. Many of them hinge on the way you prepare them. If you cook the beets, they are best used as one would use pumpkin or bananas: as a puree that can be mixed in or used in the place of other moisture-adding ingredients. This works especially well in quickbreads or cakes, for instance Nigel Slater’s famous Chocolate Cake . Like those other moist ingredients, you can also use them to reduce the fat content in your baked goods or provide flavor and texture, though used in this context you need to be careful to avoid making it too dense.
For savory uses, cooked beet puree can often be used in the place of beans; for instance, in hummus, you can do away with the chickpeas in part or entirely and produce a sweeter dip perfect for vegetables or alongside a creamy cheese in an appetizer plate. A traditional Eastern European horseradish dip, often found alongside matzoh on Passover, is simply prepared horseradish made milder through the magic of beet juice or puree.
On the raw side, it’s great to grate beets. This allows you to harness both of their stand-out qualities – their sweet, earthy juice and their moist, fibrous flesh. Some of the best ways to include them in your recipes call for separating the two, either in a juicer or by squeezing the juice out of the shredded pieces. Use the leftover flesh like you would the grated carrots in a carrot cake – indeed this is the origin of the much-beloved Red Velvet cake – or include the grated pieces in your next salad.
Liberated from the limitations of its flesh, the juice has even greater potential. It can be reduced down to a molasses consistency, readily caramelizing (indeed you have to watch it carefully to avoid burning). A few drops of this potent ingredient are like beet flavor concentrate – drip them over cheese or mix with Dijon mustard or sour cream for an instant sauce. For a stunning salad dressing try a simple vinaigrette and capture a third dimension of flavor without needing to rely on refined sugars.
For those interested in ‘green smoothies’, it’s worth noting the health benefits of beet juice as well. Even without the fiber of the root, it is high in antioxidants and nitrates, which have been tied to decreased blood pressure. Plus the natural sweetness can be an excellent way to cut the ‘green flavor’ so often found in smoothies heavy on kale or spinach without relying on less nutritious sources of sugar.
As a final note – many of the beet averse may still cry foul about the staining properties of the red beet, or the strength of its ‘beet flavor’. Never fear – golden beets are here! Lacking the vivid pigmentation as well as some of the harsher notes of their red cousins, golden beets are not perfectly exchangeable but can be a great choice on their own. They don’t play as well with chocolate but can be used more easily in other baked goods, especially when used like carrots or pumpkin. Similarly they carry themselves as well if not better raw in a salad or smoothie. Think of them like a cross between carrots and beets and, especially if you don’t think you like beets, give them a try. I doubt you’ll regret it.
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