Beets, along with lentils and escarole, are foods I avoided in my childhood and grew to love in my twenties, when I was broke and teaching myself how to cook. I was living in Brooklyn at the time, it was winter, and I had my fill of butternut squash. Beets are cheap and widely available, so I decided to give them a try.
I remember being in the produce department at Fairway, stunned by how inexpensive the beets were. Fifty-nine cents a pound! Always one to get the best bang for the few bucks I had, I bought the largest beet I could find. It was about the size of a grapefruit, enough to supply me with a week’s worth of beet salads.
I went home and consulted the oracle: Mark Bittman. In How to Cook Everything, Bittman advises that the most foolproof way to cook beets is to roast them, and so I followed his directions: trim the beets of any hairy-looking roots, wrap in foil, and roast for an hour at 400 degrees, or until the tip of a knife can easily cut through the beet’s flesh.
An hour went by, and I went to the oven to check my shining wrapped beet. It was hard as a stone. I gave it another fifteen minutes, then another thirty, and then finally, after two hours and twenty minutes of cooking time had elapsed, the tip of my knife was finally able to slice through the beet.
The long cooking time was a result of the size of the beet. Bittman didn’t mention anything about that in his recipe, and although I got the biggest beet of the bunch at Fairway, it was not significantly larger than its neighbors. Roasting a single vegetable for over two hours seemed like a waste of energy, but I decided to refrain from judgement until I tasted the beet.
“Earthy” is not an adjective that I equate with “delicious”; earthy-flavored foods remind me of the dirt they came from. Beets do have an earthy taste, much the way chard does. But roasting brings out their sweetness and cuts that earthy undertone, which is particularly strong in larger beets. I recommend going for the smaller ones.
Here are some helpful tips that I’ve learned from my blunders in the kitchen:
—Don’t roast red and golden beets together. You want to keep these guys separated as they’re cooking and after you cook them.
—Have a couple pairs of disposable gloves standing by. They will protect your hands from looking like you’ve just murdered a large animal.
—On that note, wear an apron.
—Allow the beets to cool before you peel them. Handling a steaming hot beet is like handling a hot potato—it won’t stay in your hands for long!
Without further ado, here’s my recipe for…
Overall time: 2.5 hours
Active time: 15 minutes)
—3 small to medium red beets
—3 small to medium golden beets
(You want beets that are smaller than a tennis ball here. The bigger the beet, the earthier the taste, the longer the cook time. No, no, and no.)
—A paring knife
(Heavy duty foil is nice but not necessary. Avoid the cheap thin stuff, unless you have enough to wrap them multiple times. You don’t want an explosion of beet juice in your oven, do you?)
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Place a rack in the lower third of the oven.
Rinse and dry your beets. Use your paring knife to trim the hairy roots, and carefully shave away any blemishes. You don’t want to cut into the beet that much, otherwise the juices will run out in the oven and your beets will be dry.
Wrap the golden beets in foil, making sure they are completely enclosed. Then do the same with the red beets. Put the beets in the oven and set the timer for 55 minutes. Then go find something to do.
When the timer goes off, carefully remove the foil packages from the oven, and open one of them (you can wait a few minutes to do this. No sense burning your fingers!). Take your paring knife and put its tip to one of the beets. If it cuts into the flesh easily, you’re done. If you have to apply some pressure to cut into the beet, wrap the package back up and return it to the oven. Give it another 10 minutes of baking time and check it again.
When you are done, set the beets aside to cool in their packages for about an hour. Then, put on your disposable gloves and set about the business of peeling. The peels should slide right off. Place the red beets in one container and the golden ones in another, and leave them out and uncovered until they are completely cool. Then refrigerate. I don’t recommend slicing the beets until you’re ready to use them. This way they stay moist and sweet. By the way, one cup of beets cooked this way is 0 (that’s ZERO) Weight Watchers Smart Points.
Now, what do you do with them?
Put them in a salad. Not only will they add gorgeous color, they’ll also make the salad more filling. My favorite combination: beets, baby spinach, goat cheese, some crushed walnuts gently coated in a balsamic/honey mustard vinaigrette. It’s the same salad I posted on Monday
Or, if you wanted to make a super healthy, delicious and eye-catching appetizer, you could put your beets to work in this recipe