Can you dig it?
Tapping into the earthy goodness of the humble beet
Four thousand years can bring wonderful changes to a dirty old root. Whatever beets looked like when they were first extracted from the wild and cultivated in a garden somewhere near the Mediterranean Sea prior to the Roman conquest, it was almost certainly a far and grubby cry from the colorful tuberous beauties of today. But, through its cultivated evolution, the beet—Beta vulgaris—acquired huge and delicious roots, bursting with flavor and nutrients and without which no farmers’ market would look quite right.
In Chico, GRUB CSA Farm—located off West Sacramento Avenue—makes appearances on Saturdays at the downtown market, and sells its produce at the Chico Natural Foods Cooperative and S&S Organic Produce and Natural Foods. The small nonprofit grows beets year-round (available mid-October through early summer) and specializes in two varieties—the classic red Detroit beet and the golden beet.
“Beets are amazing,” says GRUB co-founder Francine Stuelpnagel. “You can grow them year-round, and in the winter, when everything is green, it’s nice to have some color on the table.”
Speaking of color, beets at their best are brilliantly hued—densely packed with minerals, B vitamins and beta carotene. And though boiling is the most popular means of cooking beets, it is also the most wasteful, rendering pots full of crimson-magenta water, dense with goodness and, usually, dumped down the drain.
So, do this root right and bake your beets. Wrapping them in foil and baking them at 400 degrees for most of an hour will render slightly shrunken, intensified morsels that can be sliced and served in any number of ways—and which retain everything they left the earth with. Slicing before cooking will reduce oven time. Stuelpnagel, for one, likes broiling beets as a wintertime dish, often in company with other—though far less noble—winter root crops, like potatoes, turnips, parsnips and carrots.
For the summer, though, beets are all about salads. To this end, Stuelpnagel boils her beets, “peels” them with a few firm rubs of the hand, chills them, slices them, and finally drizzles them with a grapefruit-olive oil dressing. Uncooked beets, too, may be served in salads, grated over greens and drizzled with vinaigrette.
Beets are a popular staple in many juice-based fasts or cleansing diets, too; my personal preference is a beet-carrot-apple juice blend, spiced with grated ginger.
Taxonomically, beets are virtually the same as chard, each plant a variation of the same species. Like chard, beet greens are perfectly delicious—though few but the savviest shoppers use them, with many beet-lovers discarding the greens entirely, so distracted are they by the vegetable’s lower quarters. Steam or sauté them, and add to your beet salad.
If you insist on boiling your beet roots, fine—but don’t send the resultant water whirling downward into the pipes of subterranean Chico. Instead, cook your rice or quinoa with it—or mash it into potatoes. Or if you’re feeling ambitious, try this: beet wine. The following recipe is one I’ve used to produce a delicious, intense and earthy-flavored wine colored the deepest, most carpet-staining red you can imagine.
Ingredients for beet wine:
5 lbs. beets
1 gallon water
2 lemons, zested and juiced
1 tbsp. ground ginger
2 1/2 lbs. turbinado sugar
1 tsp. yeast nutrient
1 packet Montrachet wine yeast (find these last two ingredients at the Chico Home Brew Shop)
Thoroughly wash the beets and thinly slice, then dice. Boil in a large pot with half the recipe’s water, the ginger and the zest of the lemons. Cook for a full 30 minutes to completely extract the beet flavors and sugars, then strain into a clean food-grade bucket or large cauldron. Add the lemon juice, the sugar and the yeast nutrient, and stir to dissolve the sugar. Add the rest of the water and allow it to cool to room temperature. Then add the wine yeast, and cover with a tight lid. Allow at least a week to ferment. When the bubbling stops, carefully pour the wine into a glass gallon jug and fit with an airlock (from the homebrew shop). Let the wine clarify as the haze settles. Bottle after three months. Drink after a year. Don’t spill on white carpets.