Living in Alaska, we were frustrated that beets planted as seed in the ground in late May do not ripen until mid-August or later. Last year, I experimented in starting beet seeds in 6-ounce starter containers and transplanting them in the garden.I also planted some into the ground as seed. The result of the transplant project was amazing. We began eating full-size beets in early July. This year, I started over 100 in little six-packs, and all but the last 36 are planted and growing rapidly.
Some of the early transplants are now larger than a quarter, and we expect to be harvesting before the end of June.
Beets are very nutritious. Their young leaves are also one of the tastiest of fresh greens. In the early days of cultivation, in the second millennium BC, they were primarily grown for the leaves. That had changed by the 7th century AD, and alongside their use as a sugar making product, their use as a storable root vegetable expanded. Some varieties store almost as well as potatoes in cool root cellar environments.
Beets may be pickled in both Eastern and Western traditions. Beets, pickled in Kerr jars, are an Alaska staple, but some of my Japanese and Korean American friends pickle them in rice vinegar, along with burdock, or even in combinations with choys, sort of like a cross between Korean fresh pickled vegetables and kim chee.
Our favorite use of beets is as main ingredient in a fresh salad, beet-mint-goat cheese carpaccio. Although the beets are roasted, the mint and chives in the dish are fresh.
Here is a basic recipe:
12 2-inch beets, trimmed
1 cup crumbled soft fresh goat cheese (about 5 ounces)
2 tablespoons minced shallot
1/3 cup unseasoned rice vinegar
1/3 cup chopped fresh mint
1/4 cup walnut oil or olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 cup chopped fresh chives
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line rimmed baking sheet with foil. Place beets on sheet (if using both light- and dark-colored beets, place them on separate sheets to prevent discoloration). Sprinkle beets lightly with water. Cover tightly with foil. Bake until beets are tender when pierced with fork, about 40 minutes. Cool on sheet. Peel beets. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Place in resealable plastic bag; chill.)
Using cheese slicer or knife, slice beets very thinly. Slightly overlap slices on 6 plates, dividing equally. Sprinkle with cheese, then shallot, salt, and pepper. Whisk vinegar, mint, oil, and sugar in small bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Drizzle over beets. Sprinkle with chives.
The recipe can be modified. As far as the cheese goes, we’ve tried various Cypress Grove cheeses in place of standard chevre, and have gotten great results. You can also lay the beets on a bed of fresh arugula or basil leaves.
Here’s a variety of our beets, ready to be roasted, before the foil is placed over the baking dish:
Spearmint, begging to be harvested:
And a finished carpaccio:
We also make beet pasta. You can make it exactly as you might make spinach pasta, by substituting a fair amount of the pasta’s flour for beets that have been roasted and then pureed. We also have combined little slices of roasted beet, boletus mushroom and cheese inside of raviolis.
We grow a lot of Chioggia and Golden beets. They are extremely tasty, and don’t get everything in your kitchen all red. They don’t store especially well, though, so we grow up to four kinds of red beets too: Bull’s Blood, Cylendra, Flat of Egypt, and Lutz Greenleaf (which stores very well).
We’ve gone well beyond being afraid of beets, to the point where we can hardly grow or eat enough of them. Whenever we make the beet carpaccio above for a party or potluck, it disappears so fast we sometimes miss our own portion.