Tuesday, August 7, 2012
Growing and Using Fresh Beets
I didn't have the pleasure of tasting fresh beets until I grew them in my own garden. Apparently not a lot of people buy and cook fresh beets... probably because (if they're anything like me) they don't know what to do with them. The only way I had beets as a kid was pickled, from a can. They weren't my favorite... though admittedly, no vegetable was my favorite as a kid. I'm not sure what was wrong with me. I'm glad I outgrew it.
Since then, beets have turned into one of my favorites. Who knew such sweetness could come from an ugly ol' root that you pull out of the ground?
And they're easy to grow. I don't think I've ever not had success growing beets. They're relatively insect-proof, they survive if you forget to water, and they can handle both hot and cold temps. Here's what I've learned about growing beets:
*The seed is actually a small pod. When it sprouts, it will likely produce five or six little sprouts. Pull out all but one.
*Plant early. March is good in most areas - about the same time you plant brassicas (broccoli, etc.) If you plant a row every two weeks, you'll have fresh beets all summer (though sprouting seeds is usually hard in the hot, dry months.) If you want to can beets for later use, plant a big patch all at the same time.
*You can eat beets at any size. Golf-ball sized beets are the most tender, but even as much as three inches across, you can roast them and they will still taste great.
*Beet greens are essentially the same thing as Swiss chard. Cut the leaves at any time - the beet root will still keep growing, so long as you leave a few leaves on each plant. Toss the greens with some olive oil and garlic and saute them a bit for a great side veggie. Or, if you're drowning in beet greens, freeze them as you would spinach. They're great in soups and casseroles.
Variety matters. Depending on what you're going to do with your beets, choose a variety that suits your plans. Here are my favorites (I believe all of these are available through Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, and many other places):
*Bull's Blood - a dark purple-red root, this one is easiest for peeling if you're going to be putting them up for winter. It also stains the worst though.
*Golden - these ones are great for serving raw or roasting. They are perfect for messy kids, since they don't stain like the red beets do. They are a bit hard to sprout, so plant a few extra. I think goldens are my favorite, in general.
*Chioggia (candy cane) - If you want to impress your kids, the novelty of having a red and white striped beet is fun. The colors do run together a bit when they're cooked, but that doesn't take away from how pretty they are.
*Detroit Dark Red - if you want a dark red roasting beet, this is a good one. Doesn't peel as easy as Bull's Blood though. It has an "earthy" flavor that some of the others lack, if you like that sort of thing. I love mixing the Detroits, Goldens, and Chioggias when I cook, so I grow plenty of each of them.
*Crosby Egyptian - these ones are neat because they grow very much on top of the soil. You can tell how big your beets are getting just by looking, instead of having to dig around them every so often.
Beets will store For. Ever. Well, not forever. But for a really long time.
*When storing, leave about an inch of the tops and leave the long tap root.
*You can put them in a plastic bag in the fridge for months. Don't seal the bag, they need to breathe or they will mold.
*Try storing them in a root cellar or basement, in a container filled with damp sand. Don't forget to let them breathe. When I tried this, I had fresh beets into February the next year.
*If your beets feel a little soft after storage, put them in the fridge in a bowl of water for a day or two. They will firm back up.
*Beets can be frozen or pickled and canned, too.
*To freeze or can beets, you want to peel them first. Do this by putting them in boiling water for about half an hour. The skins will slip of fairly easily (or very easily with Bull's Blood) and the beet will be fork tender. Then slice, chop, or whatever, and put them by however you choose.
*When canning, a pound of beets is about a pint preserved. A 5 sq. ft. beet bed will easily produce 30 pounds of beets or more, and more greens than you could ever eat.
Also worth noting:
*Beets will dye things red. This is useful if you have a skein of handspun yarn that you want to be pink or red. This is not as useful if you have a four year old, who will also be dyed pink or red.
*If you're going to can and/or freeze beets, go buy a stack of black kitchen towels. Unless you want your favorite rooster-printed kitchen towels to have a permanent pink tinge to them.
My favorite beet recipe:
Cut the tops and taproots off of enough beets to feed your family. Expect them to eat a lot, so plan accordingly. (Usually 2 medium sized beets per person is good. Or more. They'll probably keep eating them as long as they are on the table.)
Use a vegetable peeler to peel the raw beets. Then slice them into 1/4-1/2" wedges.
In a glass baking dish, toss the beet wedges with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, enough to coat them liberally. Sprinkle with dehydrated, granulated garlic (or garlic powder), dried oregano, and salt and pepper.
Roast uncovered in a 400 degree oven for 45 minutes to an hour. Check them every so often and give them a stir to make sure they cook evenly. They are done when they can be stabbed easily with a fork.
The tangy taste of the vinegar mixed with the sweetness of the beets is really impressive. My kids devour these sort of like candy.
While it's harder to sprout beet seeds in the summer, August is the perfect time to plant if you want a fall beet harvest. Just so ya know. ;-)