If you have a garden, you may still be celebrating the harvest. But this time of year, the harvest may be of root vegetables. Carrots and beets are root crops that microwave very well.
Root vegetables take longer to cook than lighter, juicy vegetables such as tomatoes or zucchini because they contain less moisture to absorb and conduct cooking heat. Microwaving preserves the vegetables' vivid hues and dense texture.
Like other root crops, carrots and beets contain moderately high amounts of Vitamin C. Microwave cooking helps to preserve this. A Cornell University study showed consistently greater amounts of Vitamin C in microwaved vegetables than in the same vegetables cooked other ways. Besides Vitamin C, carrots also are an excellent source of Vitamin A. Microwave cooking helps to preserve this, too.
The size of the vegetable dictates the cooking requirements. Tender baby carrots, for instance, have only to be scrubbed and tops removed before being ready to microwave. Older carrots may also require scraping to rid them of bitter skin. Older carrots may also require cutting or chopping.
One of my favorite ways to cut carrots is called the roll cut. To roll cut, cut a slender, pared carrot crosswise on the diagonal, then roll the carrot a half turn so the opposite side is up before making the next cut in the opposite diagonal direction. To make the cuts in opposite diagonal directions, slant the knife with the blade angling to the right at the first cut, then to the left on the second cut. You end up with pieces resembling pyramids.
Use about cup water per pound of carrots and cook one or two pounds -- up to about a dozen -- for 12 to 16 minutes. That's about 1 to 1 1/2 minutes per carrot, for a tender-crisp texture. Many efforts by sophisticated microwave cooks have been made to be absolutely exact on the cooking time of carrots, but they defy exactitude. Their age and how they are cut are two factors which might make the difference of a minute or two. Older, larger pieces of carrot take the most time. For a change of flavor, add a few whole cloves, a dash of ginger or marjoram, or some mint to the cooking water, and stir the carrots a few times while cooking.
It's always best to cook beets whole, with the skin intact. Beets quickly lose their nutrients and color (this is called "bleeding") to cooking water. You can minimize this, not only by not tearing the skin, but also by leaving on the long root end and 1 to 2 inches of the stems. And beets are much easier to skin and clean after they're cooked. The skin will almost slip off.
Small to medium sized beets usually are the most tender. The youngest beets sometimes have fresh-looking tops that can be cooked as greens. About five medium beets make a pound, and they usually microwave on HIGH (100 % power) for about 15 to 20 minutes per pound or 3 to 4 minutes per beet. After cooking, dice or slice the beets, if desired, before seasoning. Season the beets by adding allspice, celery seeds or nutmeg. Or add orange or lemon slices to the cooking water.
Horseradish is also harvested in the fall, just before the frost. Bottled prepared horseradish is the kind most commonly found at the supermarket. But if you can find fresh horseradish, first scrape and clean the outside of the root to remove all the defects. Then grate it directly into some distilled or white vinegar. Don't use cider vinegar, as this can discolor the horseradish in a short time. Both the freshly grated or prepared horseradish must be refrigerated.
Store all root vegetables in a cool place, like the crisper drawer of the refrigerator, but if you have a garden, you also may have a root cellar. No matter how you store root vegetables, they keep fresher if you don't wash them until just before using. Too much water before storage promotes decay.
SWEET AND SOUR BEETS WITH VERVE
1 pound beets, stems cut to 1 or 2-inches and leaves removed
1 cup water
1 tablespoon cornstarch
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 tablespoons vinegar
3 tablespoons prepared horseradish
2 tablespoons butter
Sour cream, optional
Place beets and water in 1 1/2 quart microwave-safe casserole. Cover and microwave on HIGH 10 to 14 minutes, until tender when pierced with fork. Measure 3/4 cup beet juice and reserve. Discard remaining juice. Let beets cool until easy to handle then slip off skins and chop beets into large pieces. Set aside.
In same casserole, place cornstarch, sugar, salt, reserved beet juice, vinegar, horseradish and butter. Stir very well to blend cornstarch. Microwave on HIGH 4 to 7 minutes, stirring every 2 minutes, until clear and thickened. Gently stir in beets. Serve warm or cold, garnished with spoonful of sour cream. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
TANGY CARROTS WITH HORSERADISH SAUCE
2 pounds carrots, cleaned and cut into chunks, about 5 cups
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup coarsely chopped onion
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons prepared horseradish
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped dill weed or 1/2 teaspoon dried
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Place carrots and water in 2 quart microwave-safe casserole or bowl. Cover with vented plastic wrap and microwave on HIGH 10 to 14 minutes until tender-crisp. Drain.
Place onion and butter in 2 cup measuring cup or bowl. Microwave on HIGH 1 to 2 minutes until onion is almost tender. Stir in mayonnaise, horseradish, dill, salt and pepper. Pour over carrots and toss to mix well. Makes 6 to 8 servings.