Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Beet Beatitude

How to Treat a Beet

Last year, on the day before Mother’s Day, I was Saturday-morning busy when I remembered it was the first Farmers’ Market and, without much thinking about it, walked into Depot Park in Rutland... and felt a surprising jolt of what could only be called joy! There they all were once again as they have been year after year since the early seventies – those farmers and their wives and husbands and children, and their students and interns, with the beautiful, glorious, hopeful, delicious products got by the sweat of their brows: The Rutland County Farmers’ Market.

Though it’s always too early mid-May to buy much more fresh-from-the-earth than some new baby spinach and possibly a bunch of radishes and maybe beets – which in any case can be pulled soon – there are the starts of plants for our own gardens, as well as those foods that know no season – the cheeses and breads and pastries and pickles and salsa and log-grown mushrooms and fresh eggs and organic meats. And, just as importantly, all the friends and families and acquaintances and strangers and even tourists are there, who love this seasonal and weekly festival and support it with their presence and their dollars.

Taken all together, these are the people who know the value of keeping our food supply healthy and local and, as much as possible, organic; and who will pit their formidable energy and presence against the forces that compromise it.

One of those forces is plain old garden-variety ignorance. This is not a blameworthy ignorance, but only a reflection that society has changed so much that food knowledge has been left behind, at first because women wanted not to have to be dealing with food all the time (which may be an unreasonable goal, after all, for men and woman), and now because, even if people want to be dealing with food in more depth, many don’t know how.

case in point, a bunch of beets...

Perhaps it was a good year for beets last spring, or perhaps I just noticed the phenomenon, but bunches of beets were piled high on the farmers’ stands from the time their leaves were a tender, red-veined green and their rough-skinned tubers, wine-red and sprinkled with earth, were the size of an apricot, to the time when the leaves were dark green and leathery and the fruit was the size of a tennis ball. All spring, in other words, and all fall.

Now I know – and of course you do, too – that you do not peel a beet before it’s cooked. You leave an inch of stem on, leave the root alone, scrub off the worst of the dirt without breaking the skin, and then you roast them in a hot oven or on a grill, or simply boil them in enough water to cover them – possibly half an hour, but more likely 45 minutes. And you don’t poke and prod at them, to see if they’re done, until the last minutes, because you don’t want them to bleed to death of both color and flavor. When they’re tender to a fork’s tines, to the center, you drain them and let them cool a little bit and then wring them between your hands in such a way as to rub the skin and the stem and the root off.

But who, looking at the piles of bulbous and grimy things piled on the farmer’s counter, would know that.

not a young woman...

Take the young woman I watched at the Farmers’ Market one Tuesday last summer. The Tuesday Market is not quite the fiesta that it is on Saturday. The element of celebration is muted – though not entirely missing – unless you get your kicks from fresh vegetables straight from the field, which, of course, many of us do. The most unlikely people will come to the Farmers’ Market on Tuesday and you’ll notice them, which you might not do on a Saturday, and they’ll have time to ask questions and maybe the confidence to take up the farmers’ time and appear a bit ignorant. Like the young woman who handled the beets and finally said, in a slightly disgusted tone, “What are these?”

“Beets,” the farmer said. The young woman said, “Oh,” and went on to the next bin of whatever – summer squash, say, three different kinds of them or half a dozen, all a little different shape and color or, in that early part of the season, radishes, which she probably did recognize, or spinach, which she might think was lettuce, but whatever it was she would say to hell with it.

But why had she gone on from beets? Especially in the beginning of the season when beets are almost all that are coming out of the ground? Had she tasted them and found them wanting? Or had she never tasted them and had no wish to? Did they seem too much work?

Patiently, the farmer brought the young woman’s attention back to the beets. “You don’t peel these, you see,” she pointed out. And she told her how to prepare them. The young woman’s eyes widened in relief – the skins just slipped off? And they’re sweet? What a difference that made in deciding whether or not to deal with these gnarly things. She bought a bunch of beets, and paid for them with Farm to Family Coupons.

Which, by the way, is one of those things we’ve done right. I suspect this young woman would not have been at the Market if she had not had to go there to cash in those Farmers’ Market food stamps. It may have changed her life.

I asked my daughter, who is a young woman, if she knew how to cook a beet. She thought, looking off into space, that she must know, but then shook her head.

nor the older ...

It’s not only young people who do not know how to treat a beet. “How do you feel about beets?” I asked my friend, Kathi, the other night as we chatted on the phone. (My friends are used to non-sequiturs from me.)

There was a long silence. I waited. And then she burst forth. “How do I feel about beets? Sharon! I don’t like them!”

“You don’t like them?” I feigned incredulity. “But why not? They’re as sweet, almost, as candy, the most beautiful dark red in color with darker rings like the ages of a tree; and crisp and tender at the same time. And the leaves! Fantastic things, all crinkly green with red and white veins. Why don’t you like them?”

“Well,” she wailed, “I don’t know what to do with them.”

but the old ladies know...

My grandmother served them in what she called a Harvard sauce, a kind of sweetened and vinegary white sauce made by stirring flour or cornstarch into butter over a medium heat and then thinning it, probably with water in this case. Into that white sauce or blancmange or roux, when it had thickened and the flour taste cooked out, would be stirred sugar and vinegar, probably a cider vinegar. The beets were sliced into this sweet and sour and buttery sauce and turned to coat them. Salt and pepper added their emphasis at some point, and I would suggest the latter should be ground over the beets just before serving. Liberally.

Some people cut the beets into half-inch chunks instead of slices, and no doubt some of the grand ladies of Grandma’s day shredded them with the new gadget they’d acquired. Some restaurants now top a salad with deep-fried, crispy shreds of beets. I’m more likely to cut them into quarter inch sticks – a fat julienne.

After you’ve cut them up, put them into a bowl and simply sprinkle them with sea salt, douse them with olive oil – 2 to 3 tablespoons, and then add enough balsamic vinegar – or a combination of raw cider vinegar and balsamic – to make them sprightly. I slice a small onion or part of a larger one very thinly, to add. Sometimes I sliver a clove of garlic. These are essentially pickled vegetables and keep for quite a long time in the refrigerator. If you can keep them. We eat them right up.

As for the leaves, they are delicious when sautéed in some olive oil and garlic, or they could make the basis of a quiche; or simmer the older leaves with a ham hock or salt pork for flavor. I like to make a nest of them in the bottom of a Dutch oven for a pot roast. Lovely broth results.

For young beets, cook them first, and then the leaves, combine and serve with just butter and salt and pepper. Or cook some bacon until crisp, remove from the pan, sauté the beet greens in some of the bacon grease, and serve as a warm salad with the beets sliced over the greens, topped with the crumbled bacon and crumbled bleu cheese, gorgonzola or stilton, perhaps some walnuts, and a sprinkling of cider vinegar.

The other night I made a salad of arugula, julienned beets, soft, creamy goat cheese, slices of mango – those little yellow, organic ones that are available at the Rutland Co-Op now – chopped cilantro, a sprinkling of walnuts, balsamic vinegar and olive oil. (If I’d had an orange I would have zested it so that the oils from the skin, as well as the zest, sprinkled over the salad; which gets me thinking – strawberries would also be a good beet complement.) It was followed by pork tenderloins that I butterflied and folded around chopped dried apricots (because that’s what I had) and walnuts mixed with a little yogurt. Roasted for half an hour or so on a bed of half-cooked orzo, they were succulent.

I haven’t mentioned beet soup or borscht, but if I had I would’ve said: Sauté some onion and, if you like, garlic, add the cooked, skinned beets and mash them up with a potato masher. Stir in beef or vegetable stock. If you want a smooth soup put it in a blender or use a hand-held one. This can be finished off by stirring in some heavy cream that has been heated just until bubbles begin to form around the edges; or you can top it off with a dollop of crème fraiche, sour cream or yogurt.

Another friend mentioned a beet soup he’d had in Maine several years ago that contained blueberries. “It was not only the best borscht I’ve ever had, it was the best bowl of soup I’ve had in my life,” he said. I’d love to know how that was put together. I’ve made one with a topping of walnuts and anchovies chopped together into a paste and then stirred into the soup, but that’s a different animal.

tell me again......

Why go to all this trouble to treat a beet? Well, start with the fact that they’re delicious and go on from there to the fact that you can easily find ones that are locally and organically grown. Plus, they’re full of essential vitamins and minerals, says an article in Mother Earth News: “They are rich in calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, vitamin C, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin A and vitamin K. Beets store most of these nutrients in their leaves — which beet-eaters sometimes neglect — but recent investigations into their nutritional make-up bode well for the roots as well. Irwin Goldman, a beet geneticist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has shown that beet greens and beet roots are one of the best dietary sources of folate, which is one of the B vitamins.”

If you want to capitalize on that healthiness, make this Beet Kvass drink that I found in Nourishing Traditions: Into a 2 quart glass container place 3 medium or 2 large organic beets, scrubbed clean and chopped coarsely; ¼ cup of whey (the watery liquid you can pour off a container of plain yogurt); and 1 tablespoon of sea salt. Add filtered water to fill the container. Stir well and cover securely. Keep at room temperature for 2 days before transferring to the refrigerator. You drink 4 ounces of this morning and evening. It adds flora to your digestive system, “is an excellent blood tonic, promotes regularity, aids digestion, alkalizes the blood, cleanses the liver...” You get the idea.

There’s no end to what can be done with three dollars worth of beets bought from a farmer at the Farmers’ Market. Sitting there all pink and pretty on the plate, they give no inkling of the work that has gone into getting them there from a genetically unaltered seed, without pesticides or other petroleum products, from earth that hasn’t experienced those depredations either.

Here’s to the beet. What a treat!

This column was first published in the Rutland (Vermont) Herald May 22, 2007

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