Beets are back

Chef Scott Ryan might be the rare person who did not have a scarring experience with beets as a child.

The instructor at Baltimore's Stratford University culinary school was on his honeymoon in Paris when he and his wife packed a picnic that included beets marinated in fresh fennel, lemon and olive oil.

It was love at first bite.

"I think that many people have bad experiences with food — canned this or canned that — and they don't understand its true nature," said Ryan. "Beets fall into that category."

Fleet Street Kitchen's Chris Amendola's parents hated beets. "We never had them in the house," said the chef, who has several beet dishes on his menu. "I wasn't until I was working in restaurants that I even had any."

Even President Barack Obama has a problem with beets, so they were left out of the planting of the first White House vegetable garden.

"Anyone who knows beets from a can is fully justified in not liking them," said Martha Rose Shulman, who contributes healthy recipes to The New York Times.

Beets are emerging from those cans and finding their way onto the menus of fine restaurants and into the baskets of home cooks trolling farmers' markets for something new.

Donna Crivello might have been among the first to offer beets in her signature roasted vegetable salad, a mainstay at Donna's since it opened more than two decades ago.

"When I started roasting vegetables, I was just roasting whatever I saw," said Crivello. "The roasting brings out the flavor and the sugar in the beets."

Though they are most often served in salads, with spicy greens, savory cheese and the crunch of nuts, Crivello served beet ravioli to guests on Valentine's Day — it was all about the red — and beets with grilled salmon is on her menu now.

Even beet greens are finding favor. Crivello uses them to dress her ravioli and her fish. "People are willing to try them," she said, "like they have been willing to try kale and collards."

Shulman, who is based in Los Angeles and has a healthy eating website, said people often ask farmers to cut off the greens, "but that's a terrible waste."

She likes to strip the leaves off the stem and saute or blanch them with olive oil and perhaps garlic, just like Swiss chard, its cousin. Amendola likes to dehydrate the greens for garnish.

The history of beets is as colorful as the deep red, gold or pink stripe of the root.

They were first grown only for the greens, as a salad crop. But as they moved north from their home in the Mediterranean, they were cultivated for their swollen root so they could be stored in winter.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the French dictator was looking for an alternate source of sugar because the supply of sugar cane had been cut off by the British blockades, and he offered a 10,000-franc prize. The result was the sugar beet with high levels of sucrose.

Beets made their way to the New World with European settlers, but they were saddled with a reputation as peasant food, most often boiled into a strange, purple soup called borscht.

"It is amazing how versatile they have become," said Ryan, whose goal is to get his students to explore foods, like beets or Brussels sprouts, that have a poor reputation. One of his favorite ways is to serve them is as a roasted puree over cardamom ice cream.

"But I like a good, old-fashioned beet salad," he said. "It is a late-summer sweet treat."

Beets are easy to prepare and Shulman keeps some ready in her refrigerator. She roasts them in a hot oven in a covered casserole with a half an inch of water. The skin slides off easily after the beets cool. They can keep for several days for use in a salad or as a snack on their own.

Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen has focused his restaurant's menu on the local agricultural scene, and beets are a part of that. But he's another one who had a bad experience with beets as a child.

"I got pickled beets confused with spiced apple rings, and I was so disappointed," he said. "But I got over it, and I love them."

He focuses on beet recipes in the fall and winter, he said, when his choices for fresh produce start to dwindle. Thanks to hoop houses, as well as beets' preference for cooler weather, they are essentially a year-round crop.

"I love the meatiness of beets in cold weather," said Gjerde, who first cooked with beets when he and his brother had Spike and Charlie's. "I remember the first time we got a chioggia beet. I thought it was the coolest thing, these beautiful pink striped beets."

When asked if his guests have taken to beets as enthusiastically has he has, Gjerde said yes, but added, "My brother. He may be the last guy to like beets."

Donna Crivello's grilled salmon with a salad of beets, beet greens and wheat berries

The sweet beets and tangy greens are nice match for the wheat berries, which have a ruddy texture and nutty taste. A hearty salad on its own, it can be topped with feta or goat cheese, or as we do at Cross Keys, grilled salmon. There, the chef tosses the beets, greens and wheat berries with some freshly made basil pesto. If you don't have time to make pesto simply toss with olive oil, add a little basil, lemon and orange juices and salt and pepper.

Makes 4 servings

1 bunch (about 4) beets with tops (about 1 pound). If you can't get beet tops, you can use red Swiss chard.

olive oil, salt, pepper

2 cups cooked red wheat berries

2-3 cups beet greens, washed, chiffonade cut (very thin ribbons)

pinch sea or kosher salt and pepper

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons fresh orange juice

2 tablespoons basil, chiffonade cut

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 small red onion, very thinly sliced

2 tablespoons pesto*

4 6-ounce pieces of salmon fillet

2 cups cooked red wheat berries**

*For the pesto

2 cups fresh basil

1/2 cup olive oil

2 cloves garlic

1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

Blend in food processor or blender

**For the wheat berries

1 cup cooked red wheat berries

2 1/2 cups water

1 bay leaf

1 slice orange

1 slice lemon

Combine and cook for about 45 minutes until just tender

For main dish

Cut the beets from the tops, reserving the tops for the salad.

Soak the tops in cold water and continue to rinse until the water is clear.

Scrub any grit from the beets. For this recipe you can boil or roast the beets.

To roast, rub beets with some olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and set in a shallow roasting pan. Roast at 400 degrees for about 25 minutes or until beets are just tender.

To boil, place in pot, cover with water, bring to the boil then simmer for about 45 minutes or until just tender.

To test for doneness: If the point of a sharp knife penetrates with a little resistance they are done.

Cool until you can handle the beet, then peel the skins from the beets. Rinse off any bits of skins if needed.

Dice the beets into cubes about 3/4 inch.

In a medium-sized bowl toss the chiffonade of beet greens, cooked wheat berries and red onions. Add pesto if using or add orange juice and lemon juices, salt and pepper.

Set aside while grilling your salmon.

Taste. Add more pesto or juices.

Arrange on platter or individual plates. Set salmon on top.

Garnish with orange or lemon zest.

Fleet Street Kitchen's Heirloom Beet Salad

2 pounds of beets, peeled

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon rosemary

1 teaspoon thyme

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 cup pine nuts

1/4 cup homemade or Greek yogurt

1/4 cup ruby port

6 ounces sugar

2 cups beet juice

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

1 tablespoon red wine

Microgreens and raspberries

Toss beets in olive oil, rosemary, thyme, and salt. Wrap beets tightly in aluminum foil. Cook for 1 1/2 hours at 350 degrees or until tender. Remove immediately and cut to desired size.

For the pine nut butter

Roast nuts until golden brown in oven. Reserve a tablespoon of pine nuts for plating. Put into food processor to release the natural oils until it becomes liquid. Season with a pinch of salt and sugar.

For the beet borscht

Reduce port and 5 ounces sugar by half then add beet juice. Reduce again by 1/3, strain. Season with 1 tablespoon of red wine.

To finish, toss beets in sherry vinegar and olive oil to taste. Season with salt and pepper. To plate, add pine nut butter to the bottom of plate, add beets, spoon (or splatter as we do in the restaurant) borscht over and around beets. Add a small spoonful of yogurt (or use piping bag) to plate. Garnish with microgreens and raspberries.

Martha Rose Shulman's clear summer borscht

Makes 6 servings

2 pounds beets (8 medium, usually 2 bunches), peeled, cut in half and sliced in thin half-moons

7 cups water

2 teaspoons salt, or to taste

6 tablespoons strained fresh lemon juice (from 2 to 3 lemons)

1 tablespoon sugar

2 plump garlic cloves, cut in half lengthwise, green shoots removed

3/4 cup plain low-fat yogurt (optional)

1 small cucumber, peeled, seeded, and cut in small dice

Chopped fresh dill or chives for garnish

Combine the beets, water, and 1 teaspoon salt in a soup pot and bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer 30 minutes. Add the lemon juice, remaining salt, and sugar and continue to simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the garlic. Allow to cool, then cover and chill (you can speed this process by transferring the soup to a bowl and placing the bowl in an ice bath). Taste and adjust seasoning. Remove the garlic cloves.

Place 2 tablespoons yogurt, if desired, into the center of chilled soup bowls. Ladle in the soup. Garnish with diced cucumber and minced dill or chives.

Advance preparation: This soup can be made a day ahead and will be good for 2 or 3 days.

Cook's tip: This glistening, lemony summer borscht is infused with garlic and utterly refreshing, even thirst-quenching. If you enrich the soup with yogurt, the color will be dark pink. If you don't, it will be a clear, dark red.

Tips about beets

When choosing beets, look for firm bulbs with smooth skin, but without spots or bruises. Small to medium beets are generally more tender. The very large ones may be tough.

Crisp leaves mean the beets are fresh. If you are going to cook them, smaller leaves are more tender. Strip the leaves off the stems, which can be fibrous.

Wait to peel the beets. The skins slip off easily once the beets are roasted, boiled or steamed. You might want to use rubber gloves to prevent staining your fingers. And don't trim the beets before cooking. The color will drain out.

Beets are sweet, so they are best paired with spicy greens, like arugula; savory cheeses, like goat cheese or feta; and some crunch, such as walnuts or pine nuts. Beets also can stand up to red meats or fish.

Beets are noted for their nutrient content — folate, magnesium and potassium — and the greens contain beta-carotene, calcium, iron and vitamin C. Beets are also a source of phytonutrients in the pigment that have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and detoxification benefits.

Adults, and often children, experience beeturia, a reddening of the urine that can result in a rush to the doctor. It is not necessarily a problem and can occur when beets are consumed even in regular amounts. If you have concerns, however, consult your family doctor about possible problems with iron metabolism.

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