Beets come alive in menus this time of year with creative flair and tantalizing flavors that have captivated me far beyond what I’d had imagined this humble vegetable could do. For many of us beets were that unwanted vegetable on the dinner table with staining blood color, overcooked, lifeless texture and stale wood flavor.
Beets made their way into our lives one crisp, spring evening at a local restaurant where the dinner special promised a gastronomical pleasure, except for the presence of beets. I refused to let this root vegetable between me and the taste of heaven. “I’ll order that and just leave the beets behind,” I told my husband.
A broth with chicken, spring potatoes, and vegetables arrived at the table. Four small wedges of beets, two the color of a summer sunset, and two pink with white lines like a spring blossom laid out like jewels in an pool of flavor, with the texture of a slightly underripe pear and the flavor of a cooked carrot that made best friends with a radish.
I took one bite – just to try – I stopped, looked at my husband, still holding the spoon mid-air and said, “You have to try them, unlike anything I remember.”
It became a love affair. We eat yellow beets raw in salads and vegetable slaws, and roast red and chioggia beets to bring out their sweetness.
Chioggia beets are to me one of the most beautiful vegetables, any way you slice them. Their bright pink color with white rings is a psychedelic dream. Raw they pack a vegetal bite that makes your throat sing, roasted their subtle sweetness masks the spice and balance their earthy tones, and pickled, oh my! Vinegar is to beets what vanilla is to cream – heaven. I found this pickled beet recipe in one of my favorite cookbooks, Vegetables by James Peterson, I have the first edition, out in 1998, and resource to it whenever I need a reliable source for all things vegetables.
Peterson’s recipe called for tarragon vinegar and red onions, which I didn’t have on hand. I took his recipe and adapted it to what I had and introduced flavors I thought were good with the beets, like dried lemon thyme and black peppercorns.
Since I was making them for a dinner party I kept them in the jars on the table and had our guests dig in to find their favorite colors. I wish I had made more as they turned out to be the dish of the night. They were part of the first course: “three beets, three ways” as I called it, and served the raw, roasted and pickled beets with arugula, Haystack Mountain goat cheese and a drizzle of orange-honey vinaigrette.
The night went on, we ate Cassoulet and many desserts, drank some wine and told stories; and our guests asked: can I have the pickled beet recipe?
This quick pickle recipe is great for a dinner party, a lunch at the park or as part of an antipasti platter. Leave the beets in the pickle brine just long enough to take on the flavors but not too long that they will taste to much of vinegar. This recipe is adapted from Vegetables, by James Peterson.
6-8 medium size beets, washed and trimmed
1 small onion, cut into rings
1 cup white wine vinegar
1 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon dried lemon thyme
First step is to roast the beets in a tightly closed foil pouch, rubbed with oil and seasoned with salt and pepper, keeping the red beets in a separate pouch to prevent their juices from staining the yellow and chioggia beets, for 45 minutes to an hour at 400F.
Once cooled, peel the beets and slice them to 1/2-inch thick
Layer the beets with the onions in the jars, keeping the red beets in separate jars.
In a medium, stainless steal pot pour the rest of the ingredients and bring to a boil.
Pour the liquid over the beets.
Put the lids on and let cool at room temperature.
Refrigerate for up to a week.