When I was growing up, beets were only the vegetable used to make borscht. Preparing the soup was quite a chore because the beets had to be peeled when they were raw, so beets certainly did not come to mind when we wanted a quick supper.
It was in Paris that I learned to appreciate beets as a vegetable for busy-day meals. At my neighborhood market, beets were a popular item and were always sold cooked. Most Parisians serve beets dressed with a vinaigrette, and at casual bistros in France, beets in vinaigrette are a component of the ubiquitous vegetable appetizer, crudites. Although "crudites" means raw vegetables, the cooked beets are an exception.
When beets are the main focus of the salad, chefs often match them with walnuts. They also like to add sturdy, slightly bitter greens, which are complemented by the beet's smooth soft texture and sweet taste.
Wherever beets are used, dressings and sauces play on the vegetable's natural sweetness, either accentuating or balancing it. Polish beet recipes call for cream sauces seasoned with a pinch of sugar and a squeeze of lemon juice. Swedish beet salads are flavored with vinegar, sugar and horseradish. Russians like to marinate beets with vinegar and pickling spices. Iranians favor beet salads with a tangy dressing of yogurt and mint. A classic American recipe is Harvard beets, with a bold sweet-and-sour taste from generous amounts of vinegar and sugar.
To include beets in a quick menu, choose small ones because they cook faster than large ones. Cooking enough for several meals is another way to save time. In some markets, beets are sold cooked and are displayed in plastic trays in the produce section. If you buy these, you can have beet salad ready as quickly as the Parisians do.
At farmers' markets and well-stocked produce markets, there are even more beet choices. You can find delectable tiny beets of about an inch in diameter in a variety of colors: white, golden and red-and-white striped.
Once beets are cooked, their skins slip right off under a stream of cold water. If you slice a beet crosswise, the slices have attractive concentric circles.
Choose beets that are firm and unblemished. When beets are sold with their leaves, the leaves can be added to the pot for the last five minutes of cooking, so you have two vegetables in one, a root vegetable and a green vegetable. The greens have attractive red stems and a pleasing spinach-like taste.
BEET SALAD WITH WALNUTS AND GREENS
In northern France, beets are often paired with Belgian endive mixed with delicate greens like mache. For this tasty, quick variation, I use packaged rinsed baby lettuces. You can steam or bake beets, but simmering them in water is the fastest way to cook them.
5 small beets, about 1 inch in diameter
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
Freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, optional
3 tablespoons oil
6 cups mixed baby lettuces
1/4 cup walnut pieces
Rinse beets, taking care not to pierce skin. Do not trim root. Cut off greens, leaving about 1 inch of stem attached to beets.
Place beets in pan of boiling water. Cover and simmer over low heat until beets can be pierced easily with tip of sharp knife, 25 to 40 minutes. Cool.
Run beets under cold water and slip off skins. Slice or dice beets.
Whisk vinegar with salt and pepper to taste and mustard in small bowl. Whisk in oil.
Place lettuces in large bowl and toss gently with dressing. Adjust seasoning. Add beets and toss very gently. Sprinkle with walnuts and serve.
6 servings. Each serving:
132 calories; 104 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 10 grams fat; 10 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 1.17 gram fiber.