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Making The Case For Beets

Jul 11, 2012
Originally published on July 17, 2012 12:56 pm

Two years ago, cilantro haters were vindicated. The New York Times ran a story, Cilantro Haters, It's Not Your Fault, in which Harold McGee, respected food scientist and author, explained why cilantro really does taste like soap to many people. Turns out, some folks "may be genetically predisposed to dislike cilantro."

Now, I'd like to see Harold tackle beets. This vegetable suffers all sorts of indignities. People say they taste like metal, mud, wood, even dirty socks. (Dirty socks? Really? That's hard-core beet hate.)

What's behind all this beet antipathy? Is it chemistry? Genetics? Canned beets? President Obama? (He famously banned them from the White House garden.)

Unlike the president, I adore fresh beets, which are at their sweetest from May through September. Some beets, especially dark red ones, have a sweetness close to sugar, while others admittedly taste a little like dirt, or as beet lovers prefer, "earthy."

I've given some thought to this beet bashing, and here's what I've come up with: canned beets. Other than canned string beans, it's hard to find a more repugnant vegetable — freakishly iridescent and disturbingly mushy. Nothing good comes from canned beets.

Many people claim beets taste metallic. This could be because of the metal can, which studies have shown tastes like metal. But that doesn't explain why many people say fresh beets taste like metal. Perhaps it's iron. Beets are high in iron, which is why they're recommended for people with anemia.

Then there's dirt. Maybe they taste like dirt because they have not been properly cleaned and still have dirt clinging to them. Dirt tastes like dirt. Or it could be geosmin, a compound that gives beets their distinctive, dirtlike flavor.

Irwin Goldman, a beet breeder and professor of horticulture at the University of Wisconsin, is trying to help with the beet-dirt issue. He's working to breed beets higher in geosmin for people who like that distinctive dirty flavor, as well as beets lower in geosmin for those who prefer more sweetness.

In spite of their detractors, beets are experiencing a culinary heyday. Innovative food bloggers, writers and chefs are sharing recipes for raw beet salads, beet carpaccio and beet tarts. Beet confections have blossomed as well, especially mysteriously dark chocolate-beet cake, cupcakes and brownies. There's even beet ice cream, on which the jury is still out.

Chefs are smitten with diminutive, jewel-colored baby beets as well as full-sized gold beets with their sun-soaked yellow flesh. Is there a hip eatery that does not serve a roasted beet and goat cheese salad?

Nothing has elevated beets' status as powerfully as Chioggia beets, also known as candy-stripe or candy-cane beets due to their festive red and white striations. When they appear at my local farmers market, they cause traffic jams. (Keep in mind that cooking diminishes their color, so for the most dramatic presentation, serve Chioggia beets raw.)

When selecting beets, look for deeply colored, smooth, firm-skinned globes with the leaves attached. Avoid beets that are soft, shriveled, pitted or spotted. If storing, cut off the leaves, and trim the stems to about 1 inch. Wrap in paper towel, place inside a plastic bag, and refrigerate for seven to 10 days.

When you're ready to eat them, wash beets thoroughly, scrubbing the skin to dislodge any dirt, then cut off the stem. You can boil, steam, microwave and even grill beets, yet roasting is the kindest cooking method, as the heat gently caramelizes the vegetable's natural sugars. Plus, the skins practically slide off after roasting. Of course, you can also enjoy beets in all their raw glory. Grated, shaved or sliced paper-thin, they're bursting with color and crunch.

As for the beet greens, whatever you do, don't throw them away unless they're mildewed, browned or full of holes. Fresh beet greens should be unwilted and richly colored. They're similar in taste to Swiss chard and are a delicious alternative to more prosaic spinach.

To prepare them, cut off any thick stalks. Submerge in a large bowl of water to loosen the dirt. Drain, rinse and repeat as necessary, then pat dry. Par-boil them by dropping in boiling water for one minute. Remove and plunge into a bowl of ice water. "Shocking" the greens will keep them bright and beautiful. Drain, and store in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for up to three days. Beet greens are wonderful simply sauteed in olive oil and garlic, tossed into scrambled eggs and pasta or added to soups and stews. They're also delicious raw, thinly sliced and added to salads and sandwiches.

As for flavor pairings, beets have an affinity for tangy, pungent foods such as goat, blue and feta cheeses, sour cream, yogurt, horseradish and onions; acidic foods such as oranges, lemons and vinegars; and smoky foods such as bacon, smoked fish and smoked meats. They also pair well with legumes, especially lentils; whole grains such as barley, bulgur and quinoa; and most nuts, particularly pistachios and walnuts.

If you have a tenuous relationship with beets, consider starting simply. Roasted beets sprinkled with good olive oil, salt, black pepper and fresh herbs such as rosemary or thyme are one of the tastiest ways to enjoy beets. So, too, is crostini topped with goat cheese, sliced roasted beets, lemon juice, sea salt and olive oil. Crunchy raw beet salads are an attractive option as well, especially when tossed with shredded carrots, apples, raisins and walnuts and coated with a creamy tahini or yogurt dressing.

I hope folks like Irwin Goldman and Harold McGee shed some light on this dirty issue soon because clearly it's not on President Obama's agenda. While I wait, I'll be slurping my beet smoothies, spooning my beet soup and crunching my beet chips with abandon.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.