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The Beet Generalization

March 26, 1997|RUSS PARSONS

Most people don't associate beets with the beginning of spring. Actually, people probably don't associate beets with anything but those awful, tasteless things that come in cans and jars.

But the first of this year's beets are coming on the market and, if you want a fresh introduction, there's no better time. Brace yourself: Beets are delicious.

Although the most common beets are about as big around as a large egg and are tasteless from being kept in storage, these spring beets are more the size of walnuts. Most important, they are deeply flavored and sweet.

Boiled beets sounds like someone's idea of a curse. The best way to prepare beets is to roast them. First, clip the greens about an inch above the root. Trim any long tails too. Then wrap the beets tightly in aluminum foil and place them on a cookie sheet in a 400-degree oven. They should roast for 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the beet. To test for doneness, stick them with a paring knife. Don't worry about the knife leaving a hole in the aluminum foil; the cookie sheet will catch any drippings.

When they're tender enough that a knife will slip in easily, remove the beets from the oven and unwrap the foil. As soon as they're just cool enough to handle, rub the peels off with your fingers; they'll come clean very easily. (If you're not careful, the tops will probably come off too. Try to avoid this; the tops look nice in most preparations.)

Once you've cooked your beets, there's no end of things that can be done with them. I particularly like to serve them quartered in a salad with their blanched greens. Dress it with some good olive oil and some good Sherry vinegar. As full flavored as good beets are, they'll stand up to a good grinding of pepper and some coarse salt too. Toasted walnuts also pair well with beets, as does a little orange juice. Horseradish is another common companion, but use it lightly.

Although all beets taste about the same--given good quality and careful preparation, of course--some varieties look much different from the all-red design with which we are most familiar. When cut, chioggia (pronounced key-OH-ja) beets have alternating red and white strips in a bulls-eye pattern. Golden beets are, well, just that. One nice thing is that beets, unlike some other vegetables, don't lose their color when they're cooked.

Whatever the variety, when buying beets look for roots that are roughly the same size, so they'll cook in about the same time. Most important, look at the greens. They're a much better indicator of the freshness of the vegetable than the roots, which tend to look much the same no matter how old they are.

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