March 25, 2009

The Versatile Beet

Many people don’t realize that the greens of the beetroot are edible and actually quite good and nutritious. In fact, the greens of the wild beet were a very popular food among ancient civilizations in Europe, Asia and the Middle East; the roots were valued only for medicinal purposes. The beetroot and chard come from the same family and have similar characteristics, with the exception of one minor feature…a fleshy, succulent, plump root attached at the base, or what most people have come to know as the beet.

It was not until the sixteenth century that people began to consume beet roots as a vegetable. Europeans began to cultivate different forms and its popularity spread eastward, becoming a staple food in regions like Poland, Russia and Scandinavia. Even today, the beetroot remains an important feature of the traditional cuisines of Eastern Europe (borscht anyone?)

Around the same time in France, “a kind of parsnip” that has a “very red and rather fat root with thick leaves, and all of it is good to eat” (French agronomist Olivier de Serres, 1629) began to gain popularity and was known as the Roman beet. In one of the earliest books of modern French cookery, it was recommended that beets be prepared in the following way: peeled, cut into rounds, and fried in butter and a chopped onion and a dash of vinegar. Sounds tasty…

Beets are practically a staple food for me: they are available year round, extremely versatile, loaded with antioxidants, and deliciously sweet. Plus, if I buy the whole plant, I get my greens to cook with too! Beet roots can be eaten raw, boiled, steamed, roasted or sautéed. My personal favorite is roasted beets, as the process allows them to impart a soft, buttery texture and a robust, earthy flavor.

I happened to pick up some golden beets at a local produce market and thought I’d share one of my favorite roasted beet salad recipes. The citrus and mint pair very nicely with the tender beets and add a nice early spring twist.

Roasted Beet Salad with Citrus and Mint

I used blood oranges, but any type of sweet citrus would work well—try navel oranges or grapefruit. Goat cheese or blue cheese would make a nice substitution for the feta if you would prefer. Of course, any color of beet would work well here. The striped beets are especially eye-appealing--try them if you ever come across any.

Serves 4

4 medium beets
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed orange juice
2 oranges, peeled and separated into segments
¼ cup mint leaves, chopped
1 shallot, thinly sliced
4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Fresh baby spinach leaves or mixed greens (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut the greens from the beets, leaving a 1/4 inch stub of the stems. Scrub the beets and place them in a baking dish. Cover tightly with foil and roast for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until tender and can be easily penetrated with a fork, about 45 to 60 minutes, depending on the size. Cut away the ends and slip off the skins under cool running water. Cut into small wedges. Set aside to cool.

2. Whisk together the balsamic vinegar, olive oil and orange juice. Season with salt and pepper.

3. In a large bowl toss the beets together with the orange segments, mint and shallots. Drizzle the dressing over and toss to combine. If serving over spinach or mixed greens, divide among 4 plates and top each with the beet salad. Sprinkle the cheese evenly over the top. Serve immediately.

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