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Jewels in the Rough

We rarely plant them and hardly ever praise them. But beets are a late summer treasure.

September 04, 2002|EMILY GREEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the face of it, beets are extroverts. Their very veins run magenta, red and gold. The roots come from the same high palette. When the hue is purple or red, which it so often is, then they are not just flamboyant, but inky as an angry octopus.

And yet for all this personality, beets are among the most neglected vegetables in the marketplace. Their reputation is 50 years out of date. People grumble of beet fatigue from Victory Gardens. Others think of beets as canned items. It's hard to find anyone who studies them. In fact, a convention of U.S. beet experts would be a convention of one. Then there's the mess. Boil them and the beets stain your hands, your cutting board, your clothes.

No splendor is perfect. But before writing off the beet, bake it. Its color seems to retreat within it, becoming even more saturated, yet more beautiful. Once you've tasted a baked beet, it's hard to have them any other way. It is one of the most arresting flavors to come from the field. Its sweetness can only be surpassed by sugar cane, but then this sweetness is countered by a profound and complex earthiness.

Summed up in a suffix, beets are -er: brighter, sweeter, stronger, darker. Right now, they are at their er-est. Across the country, the shortening days and gradual chill is concentrating their flavor in the field, even before harvest.

This intensity makes it tricky to move on to the beet's crowning grace, which is--don't scoff--great subtlety. Faced with other ingredients, beets have a wholly magical tact. They are a superb foil. There is no more accommodating food. Beets complement almost every ingredient that any cook from anywhere can throw at them.

Give it a try. Bake an entire panful. Wash them if they're cruddy. Cut them about an inch above the stem so the pigment doesn't run. If they're medium-size, pop them in the oven at about 375 degrees for an hour and a half. There will be a sweet, toasty almost nutty aroma wafting around the kitchen when they're done.

You can test for doneness much as you would with a boiled potato, by sticking something sharp into the beets and deciding if that's the resistance you find palatable (the beet itself is edible raw). Let them cool. Store the ones you're not going to eat, unpeeled, in Tupperware in the fridge.

Peel the ones you are going to use. The skins should come away fairly easily, if not slipping right off like breezy cookery writers swear they do. First, put them warm or at room temperature in a salad with toasted walnuts, goat cheese, mache and orange. See what happens.

Exactly. The walnuts will never taste nuttier, the chevre never tangier and orange never fruitier. Now try some more pureed with vinegar, sugar and horseradish. You'll have a classic condiment, called chrain, perfect for meats, or dumplings.

Now try pureeing roast beets into chicken stock to make borscht. Cook beets with star anise, finish them with pastis. Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten hits beets with Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce and capers, and they take it. Whatever you do to them, never for a second do they lose their integrity. Carrots should have such character.

Or flexibility. Beets accept whatever oil is in your larder--olive oil, walnut oil, pine nut oil. They become luminous and satiny in the presence of butter, bright and refreshing with vinegar. Various recipes insist on balsamic vinegar here, cider vinegar there, Sherry vinegar the next breath and raspberry vinegar for yet another concoction. Beets embrace them all with equanimity.

Vegans use beets in lieu of meat; carnivores use them as pungent garnishes for beef. They go equally well with dill, with parsley, with chervil, tarragon or chives. You can bake them like potatoes, serve them slit and buttered. If you're hungry and want a fast fix and don't mind the mess, all beets require to constitute a meal are boiling, peeling and, if you're feeling fancy, the addition of salt and pepper.

They're that good.

But all this versatility goes unsung. Instead, beets seem to be a cue for jokes about the Cold War and the Catskills, though beets don't even originate from Russia, Poland or upstate New York. They come from the Mediterranean, where the wild progenitors of today's domesticated crops grew around the seashore at tide lines.

Dr. Beet

For insight into the history of beets, horticulture writer Roger Phillips harks back to Aristotle. The late British food writer Jane Grigson preferred Pliny. American food historian William Woys Weaver offers an anecdote about the 6th century Levantine physician Dioscorides. Myself, I give you Irwin Goldman, a beet breeder at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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