Beets are the colors of fall: school-bus yellow and blazing scarlet. Sweet, earthy and dense, they’re autumn’s answer for heartier salads.
A perfect foil to the sharper acid notes of vinegar and citrus, beets stand up to aggressive herbs, spices and cheeses. Mediterranean seasonings of all kinds — Greek, Middle Eastern, North African, Italian and Provençal — work beautifully. Try herbs such as tarragon, rosemary, cilantro and parsley, and pungent cheeses, such as feta and Gorgonzola. Tangy sour cream or yogurt-based dressings are marvelous, too.
While beets are key to the classic borscht, they shine in salads, adding color and heft. Though you can make a nice slaw with shredded raw beets, their sugary notes and firm, meaty texture is enhanced when they’re cooked.
Steaming is the way to go as it’s the quickest, easiest method. For this cooking method, be sure to leave some of the stem and root intact to help retain the juice, and cook the beets only until tender. Once cooled, the peels will slip off in your hands.
Roasting works well, too, but takes much longer. It’s a pity that cooked beets are not sold at the farmers markets as they are in France, where they are available ready to be sliced and dressed as soon as you get home.
Be careful when working with red beets as their color is so intense that it’s used as a dye for clothing and processed foods. The red will temporarily stain your hands, surfaces and any other food it comes in contact with. It’s best to cook and serve red beets separately. When you hard-cook eggs in beet juice, the shell and some of the white will pick up the color and turn a pale shade of pink.
Beets come in a wide assortment of colors. At the farmers markets, find the familiar ruby red and golden varieties, along with pale pink, ivory and the gorgeous striped Chioggia. Choose beets that are firm and not nicked or bruised with greens that are attached and bright. The size and color matters little when it comes to flavor.
As soon as you get the beets home, cut off the greens and plan to cook them just as you would spinach, sautéed in a little oil or butter and seasoned with a squirt of lemon or vinegar. Store the rest of the beets in perforated plastic bags in the crisper compartment of the refrigerator. They’ll stay fresh for several weeks.
Once cooked, beets will keep in a covered bowl in the refrigerator for about five days, ready to be tossed into a beautiful salad at any time.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.