One of my favorite winter root vegetables is the beetroot, or beets. Deep garnet red, bright yellow, golden, even candy-cane striped, the taproot portion of the beet plant has a sweet and earthy flavor. Despite their nutritional benefits: rich in antioxidants, folic acid, potassium and fiber, beets, unfortunately, can be downright messy.
The rich red pigments that color beets leach out onto your hands, into the mashed potato, even on your apron. These pigments, a group known as betacyanins, also color the beautiful tropical plant bougainvillea. Since the 1500’s, the juice of beets has been used as a coloring agent, first for lipstick, rouge, and fabric, now as an industrial food colorant for jams and jellies, breakfast cereals, and as a color and flavor enhancer for tomato paste and sauces.
Beets can be enjoyed roasted, boiled, pickled, and even raw. In Medieval times, they were stuffed into pies. The Elizabethans cooked beets in tarts and stews. In Poland, the beet is mixed with horseradish and served as a condiment to a cold cut plate, or meat and potatoes. Beets are the primary ingredient in borscht, a hearty, sour soup that originated in Ukraine, (usually served with a dollop of sour cream, that quickly becomes stained.)
Many folks have a love-hate relationship with beets, enjoying their distinctive flavor in only certain ways. Seniors, I’ve found really like pickled beets. In my childhood years, the late 50’s and early 60’s, my mother prepared “Harvard beets”; sliced, cooked beets in a sauce made with sugar, cornstarch, vinegar, water and butter. Not my favorite way to eat beets!
Pickled beets are a good condiment for salty meats, cheese trays, and sandwiches. They also easy to make into a festive salad with greens, crumbled cheese, and toasted nuts. Roasted beets, beet chutney, chocolate cake, even beet pasta are interesting ways to enjoy this cancer-fighting vegetable.
My latest recipe comes to me from David Pelletier, head of maintenance at the Deer Isle –Stonington schools. Dave frequently stops by the kitchen to see what’s cooking, and we share ideas, food, and recipes. When I tasted the jar of beet salad he left on my desk, I had to have the recipe.
Like many creative cooks, Dave had no written formual, but did share his ingredient approximation. Three different kinds of vinegar add a delicious taste contrast to the sweet, crunch of the beets. Spiral slices of beets become perfectly coated when tossed with the dressing and stay nicely crisp. Grated beets would work if your kitchen isn’t equipped with a spiral slicer. (Or drop a hint to Santa. Spiral slices of veggies create culinary miracles).
I like the salad better after it has marinated for at least 24 hours, and found the flavor even more addictive the longer it married. Another flavor enhancer in the dressing is Coconut aminos, a salty, savory seasoning sauce made from the fermented sap of coconut palm and sea salt, similar in color and consistency to light soy sauce. Used as a substitute for those with soy allergies, coconut amino is available at the Burnt Cove Market, Blue Hill coop, health food stores and many supermarkets.
Served on a bed of greens, Dave’s Beet Salad is my new holiday salad: festive, delicious, and nutritious. The best part, beets are a natural source of tryptophan and betaine, crystals that promote the body’s feeling of well-being. And in times like this, who doesn’t need that? Eat more beets!