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SOCAL STYLE: Entertaining

Pretty in a Pickle

Beets in Spiced Vinegar Provide Delightful Color and Crunch

January 11, 1998

Setting a bowl of pickled beets on the table is a gesture from another era. Back in the days before salad bars and farmers' markets, making a meal special enough for company simply involved checking the larder for a fruit or vegetable that had been "put up" during the previous growing season, when the kitchen overflowed with just-picked produce. A jar of pickled beets frequently did the trick; not only did it make the mouth water and the gustatory juices flow, but it introduced lurid color into the proceedings in the form of bold, unregenerate magenta. Suddenly, the dinner table looked like fun.

Today, pickles and preserves still bespeak hospitality, that little something extra in the cut-glass bowl. And the best time to make them remains when they're in abundance--either in your own backyard or at the store. Pickling, in fact, is a perfect remedy for full-refrigerator syndrome, which afflicts those who succumb to far too many gorgeous vegetables at the market and then feel guilty, knowing they can't possibly eat everything before it goes bad.

On the other hand, for stand-up refrigerator snacking, a single pickled beet can soothe with its resounding crunch and its vinegar snap, which shuts down the mouth with satisfaction. Think of it as savory candy. Or think of a handful as part of a peasant supper, with cold beer, dark bread and some hard-cooked eggs perhaps. Let a few of the shelled eggs sit in the vinegar when the beets are gone, and you've got another earthy condiment in the bargain.

You needn't stick to red beets either. I've prepared this recipe using golden beets painstakingly gleaned from my own garden, and the result has still been an alluring jarful, something to admire every time the cupboard door swings open.

Skip, an elderly neighbor who gardens the old-fashioned way--on a big scale--stopped by as I was prying each precious tiny beet from my garden one morning. "I'm going to make pickled beets," I told him proudly. He looked at the contents of my garden basket and, though he didn't say a word, I knew "scrawny" was on the tip of his tongue.

The next day, I found a paper bag on my porch. Inside was a crimson root so big that I could barely hold it in one hand and a note from Skip that read: "Now this is what you call a beet." By the time I'd cut it up, sterilized a few more jars and simmered another potful of spiced vinegar, that single old-fashioned beet made two whole batches of this aromatic pickle--enough for me and plenty more to serve every guest who shares my table from now till the end of the next growing season.4 pounds baby beets

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PICKLED BABY BEETS

(Makes about two 4-cup jars)

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4 cups cider vinegar

1 cinnamon stick

1 teaspoon ground mace

1 teaspoon ground allspice

1 teaspoon ground cloves

8 black peppercorns

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This recipe is from Jan Berry's "Art of Preserving" (Ten Speed Press). Baby beets can be served whole. Slice or quarter the larger ones.

Trim beets carefully, leaving on a little of the stalks and taking care not to pierce skins or beets will bleed. Place beets in saucepan and cover them with water. Bring water to boil and cook over medium heat until beets are tender when pricked with skewer, about 5 to 10 minutes. Remove skins when cool.

To make spiced vinegar, place vinegar and spices in saucepan over medium heat, bring vinegar to boil and boil for 5 minutes. Remove saucepan from heat and set aside to cool. Pack beets into sterilized jars, cover with spiced vinegar and seal. Store beets in cool, dark place for as long as four months. They will be ready to eat after two weeks.

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Food stylist: Norman Stewart

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