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Eat this! Fresh beets, nature’s jewels for the table

Markethouse's  baby beet salad (Photo ©2011 by Leah A. Zeldes).

Markethouse's baby beet salad (Photo by Leah A. Zeldes).

What it is: An underrated root vegetable, fresh beets come in a colorful spectrum of jewel tones ranging from the familiar deep purple-red to pink to the distinctive candy-striped ‘Chioggia,’ as well as shades of orange and yellow. The variants taste much the same as the red ones, sweet and a little earthy.

Chef Scott Walton of Markethouse Restaurant and Bar in Streeterville, who prepared a beet-centered cooking demonstration and five-course dinner yesterday, says many people who think they dislike the vegetable have never tasted freshly prepared beets — only inferior canned or pickled versions.

“They aren’t even like beets!” the chef exclaims.

Where it comes from: Beets originated in North Africa in prehistoric times. They were first cultivated by the ancient Romans, who considered the root vegetable an important health food — they are rich in antioxidents and Vitamins A and C — as well as an aphrodisiac and depicted them in frescoes on the walls of brothels in Pompeii. Mythology says Venus, the goddess of love, ate beets to enhance her beauty.

Leading commercial growers today include the United States, Russia, France, Poland, France and Germany. California, Colorado, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Texas are the top U.S. producers of table beets.

Beets are typically available all year round, but winter beets are often storage varieties. Peak season for fresh beets, particularly the less common varieties and tender baby beets is June through mid-October.

Scott Walton

Scott Walton

What to do with it: Look for small-to-medium-sized, smooth, firm beets with fresh, green tops. The tops are also edible and can be cooked like spinach. Cut them off and refrigerate separately for the longest storage.

Beet roots can be boiled, steamed and roasted and served either hot or chilled. They’re commonly pickled, and they’re frequently made into soups such as borscht. Thinly sliced or shredded, beets can also be eaten raw for a crunchy texture and less-sweet flavor.

Beets are best cooked minimally, just until tender, to retain flavor and nutrients. Peel after cooking for ease of peeling and to minimize staining. Wear gloves and protect surfaces when working with red beets — the color is a potent dye. Walton advises cooking different varieties of beets separately for the best color.

Walton’s dinner, prepared from beets grown in the restaurant’s rooftop garden, featured beet-flavored popcorn, beet-garnished smoked salmon, golden beet borscht with beet “caviar,” roasted dry-aged Berkshire pork over braised beet tops with beet-enhanced wine sauce and buttermilk beet panna cotta. He also used baby beets in a chilled salad with goat cheese and maple-sherry vinaigrette.

Walton will conduct a similar garden cooking program and dinner, focused on carrots, on Aug. 30. The evening costs $45; reservations are required.

 
Markethouse’s baby beet salad
Chef Scott Walton

Baby beets:
12 baby red beets
12 baby yellow beets
12 baby candy stripe beets
Water
3 tablespoons salt

Goat cheese balls:
1 log goat cheese
1 cup toasted walnuts, finely chopped

Maple-sherry vinaigrette:
1/2 cup sherry vinegar
1/2 cup maple syrup
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and black pepper to taste

Salad:
Salt to taste
24 pieces frisée
12 sprigs mache
16 thin slices radish

Cook the beets: Trim tops off all the beets, and wash thoroughly. Place the beets, each color separately into three pots. Cover each with water and season with 1 tablespoon salt. Boil until fork tender.

Drain the beets and chill. After each has cooled, peel each color separately, so not to bleed on each other. Cut in quarters and refrigerate separately until serving time.

Prepare the cheese balls: Take a piece of the goat cheese log, roll it into a ball. Lay the chopped walnuts on a small sheet pan. Roll the balled goat cheese in the walnuts, pressing so to stick the walnuts to the cheese. Store refrigerated, in a dry place.

Mix the maple-sherry vinaigrette: Whisk together all ingredients.

Assemble the salads: For each serving, place 2 goat cheese balls in the bottom of a serving dish.

For each serving, put 12 quarters of each kind of prepared beet in a bowl and season with salt. Toss with 1/2 tablespoon maple sherry vinaigrette, and place neatly around the goat cheese in the dish. Loosely cover the beets with the frisee. Garnish with the sprigs of mache and the radishes. 4 servings

 
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