While we understand the instinctive childhood aversion (often extending to adulthood) to vegetables like broccoli and brussels sprouts, it’s harder to process the problem with beets. Which are — despite their myriad health benefits — packed with unprecedented levels of sucrose (the so-named Sugarbeet actually accounts for 54% of domestically-produced sugar). And the common Red Beet is also used as a natural dye; although it’s hardly the only variety with eye-popping properties. Witness the mild and sweet Golden Beet, the burgundy, carrot-shaped Cylindra, and the candy cane-striped Chiogga; an heirloom strain that’s inherently favored by chefs.
And considering beets are cold weather-resistant and hearty, they provide a welcome jolt of freshness and color in winter; a season otherwise monopolized by starchy, dun-colored tubers. At the recently revived Union Square Café, beets are treated like loaded baked potatoes, topped with clouds of sour cream and nubs of guanciale. And beets are all over the menu at the similarly relocated, equally vegetable-focused Rouge Tomate; offered as a snack along with concord grapes and castelvetrano olives, and accompanying arctic char, as part of a base of cabbage, hazelnuts and mustard. Casey Lane layers beets with goat cheese in a dill-perfumed torta at his regional Italian Casa Apicii, and over in Brooklyn, the top-rated Middle Eastern restaurant, Tanoreen, eschews chickpeas completely in hummus, substituting rounds of ruby, cumin-roasted beetroot instead. Beets are the not-so-secret ingredient in Gran Electrica’s signature margarita; swirled into a rich, infused syrup and shaken with tequila, combier and salt. And then there’s Brooklyn Beet Company, who’ve essentially embraced the violet veggie as their mascot; boiling them down into a housemade ketchup (also sold by the bottle), and incorporating them into a meat-free, walnut and black eyed pea-studded burger, surrounded in puffy langos; a fried or grilled Slovakian bread.
Yet as plentiful and versatile as beets are, it can often seem intimidating to prepare them at home. So here’s a bit of 411 — when it comes to choosing beets, look for small or medium-sized specimens whose roots are firm, smooth-skinned and deep in color. Smaller, younger beets may be so tender that peeling won’t even be needed after they are cooked! Avoid beets that have spots, bruises or soft, wet areas, all of which indicate spoilage. Shriveled or flabby veggies should also be avoided, as these are signs that the roots are aged, tough and fibrous. And while the quality of the greens does not reflect that of the roots, it seems a waste not to consume this very nutritious, not to mention delicious, part of the plant — so go ahead and look for leaves that appear fresh, tender, and have a lively, verdant color.
When it comes to storage, cut the majority of the greens and their stems from the roots, so they don’t wick away moisture. Leave about two inches of the stem attached to prevent the roots from “bleeding.” Do not wash beets before storing. Place in a plastic bag and wrap the bag tightly around the beets, squeezing out as much of the air from the bag as possible, and place in refrigerator where they will keep for up to 3 weeks. Loss of some nutrients in beets—for example, its vitamin C content—is likely to be slowed down through refrigeration. Store the unwashed greens in a separate plastic bag squeezing out as much of the air as possible, and place in the refrigerator where they will keep fresh for about four days.
Ready to use your ruby roots? Rinse them gently under cold running water. Since beet juice can stain, wearing kitchen gloves is a good idea when handling beets. Although if your hands become colored during the cleaning and cooking process, simply rubbing them with lemon juice should do the trick. Beet skins can (and should) be removed either before or after the cooking process; use a vegetable peeler if raw, or rub them away manually (and easily) after boiling or roasting.
Now that they’re naked, they can be used in endless ways! Chop into tiny dices for a vegetarian version of tartare, or take a cue from the ingenious Daniel Eddy at Rebelle, and swap them for beef, in a supple “beet bourguignon.” Slice into thin, raw rings for a crunchy, sprightly salad, or fat, roasted wedges for a rustic and warming one — combined with creamy goat cheese, an herbaceous dressing and a smattering of toasted nuts. There’s borscht, of course, the beloved Eastern European soup (served hot or cold), and beets are eminently drinkable; pureed into all manner of healthful tonics, juices or smoothies. And don’t forget that, since they’re so sweet, beets make an excellent dessert course; either frozen into sorbet, tucked into tarts, or baked into incomparably moist cake — so get over your childhood compunctions (and don’t bother with that pickled canned stuff), because fresh and fleshy beets are like nature’s edible salvation, offered like a rose in the cold, harsh dead of winter.
Union Square Café
101 E 19th St
126 W 18th St
62 W 9th St
7523 3rd Ave
5 Front St
Brooklyn Beet Company
7205 3rd Ave