Beet me up: Six summery ways to enjoy the sweetest root vegetable

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I peek under our hoop house garden bed to check the progress of the hundred beets we planted early in the winter. The greens look healthy and strong. For two months I have resisted the urge to harvest baby beets early. On occasion, I did harvest a few beets under the auspices of “thinning the bed.” (Sometimes thinning a garden bed is necessary to give the growing beets enough space to reach their potential; other times it is an excuse to sample your bounty.) Our waiting has paid off as we harvest an abundant and tasty crop.

It was the health benefits of beets that convinced us to dedicate a large portion of our spring garden to this particular root crop. Beets are mineral rich, and they may also fight cancer with their high concentration of the antioxidant compound betalain. That’s the compound that gives dark red beets their deep color.

We planted heirloom beets, which have a slightly higher nutritional punch than the standard commercially available beets. Nutrition in commercial beets has actually declined in the past 70 years, largely due to commercial seed trading nutrient density in exchange for higher yields. (See chart, or check out my other post over here.) The beets at the store are simply less nutritious than the heirlooms I grow in my garden, although you might find comparable ones at your local farmers market.

As I see it, I can enjoy three entire roasted beets, meet more than 15% of my iron requirement, and prevent cancer — all with a root crop that is extremely easy to grow in my garden, and that kids actually enjoy eating. We have planted many heirloom beets in our excitement.

Here in California, our beet harvest is at its peak. Californians ought to make a beeline to their local farmers markets to enjoy the beet bounty before it is over. Throughout cooler parts of the country, beet lovers will feast throughout the summer.

Appreciating the mountain of beets we are now harvesting, we have been experimenting with beet recipes. We ask everyone we know for interesting ways to use our beets, and they’ve delighted us with ideas. Here are our top picks:

Roasted Beets

This simple recipe tops my list of personal favorites: Peel and cube the beets. Toss them in olive oil and chopped garlic. Allow the beets to marinate for a few hours. Roast them in a 425-degree oven for about 45 minutes. They will become a bit crispy with garlic and olive oil undertones. Roasted beets may be my new favorite snack and get my highest recommendation.

If you are using the roasted beet as an ingredient in recipes, you can save time by roasting them whole. Wrap your washed and dried, unpeeled beets in foil and roast them in a 425-degree oven for about 60-90 minutes (depending on size, smaller ones will be done first) until they are soft through the center. Let them cool, peel them with your fingers, and cube them to use in the roasted beet recipe ideas below. Take the cubes a step further and purée them in a food processor if your recipe calls for a puréed beet.

Beet Citrus Salad

For a dazzling side salad, this combination of beets, orange, fennel, and chives is dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, and mustard and served on a bed of baby greens. It is a great complement to a heavy beef dish but it is also exceptional with traditional vegetarian fare such as falafel and hummus. (My recipe’s here.)

Grated Beet Salad

This is a terrific summer side dish. Simply peel and grate your fresh beets (a food processor comes in handy here) and toss with citrus, chives or other herbs, and olive oil for a bright combination of flavors that, like the beet citrus salad above, complements both a heavy beef-based entrée or a simple bed of brown rice pilaf. (Find the recipe at the New York Times.)

Beet and Potato Salad

This idea comes from the Polish countryside, where beets, potatoes, and cream are widely available to small farmers. The beets and potatoes are roasted separately and combined with a dressing of sour cream and dill weed, then garnished with fresh parsley and chives. The heartier flavor of the roasted potato balances the sweeter beet, creating a surprisingly delightful combination. You will be tempted to eat this salad as a stand-alone meal, but it also pairs nicely with with a green salad, cheesy flatbread, or a grass-fed steak. (Find my recipe here.)

Beet Root Soup

Use your roasted beet cubes along with chicken or vegetable broth as the base for a nourishing soup. Simply puree roasted beets and sauteed shallots in a hearty broth and top the soup with cream, chives, and fresh fennel. (You can also peel, cube, and boil fresh beets til tender, but roasted ones will have a much deeper flavor.) The flavors of the soup are delicate and the soup rich and satisfying. Serve the soup as an impressive first course or eat it as a meal with hot sourdough bread. (Find a recipe at About.com.)

Beets for Dessert

Thanks to the health benefits of beets and their natural sweetness, beet-based desserts are the new rage among creative cooks. Use a beet purée as you would a purée of pumpkin — in muffins, cookies, cakes, and sweet breads. The color is delightful, and the flavor has so far passed the taste test of my 10-year-old, whose pickiness is epic. It helps that he has no idea where the vibrant red comes from. A chocolate muffin recipe (like this one) will get you started.

Got a great beet recipe? Please post it in the comments. We have quite a few beets to eat!

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