Photo by Jessica Walliser
I grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch country, so at every family gathering there were pickled red beets. In fact, until I was an adult, I assumed pickling was the only way you could prepare beets. Every summer my mother canned red beets, filling the house with the earthy (read: dirt-like) smell of the cooking roots. The fragrance drove my sister and I to the neighbors, and I swore that even as an adult, I would never eat a beet. Then I met my friend Chris.
One day about 15 years ago while we were working together, she began talking about the beets growing in her garden and how much she enjoyed their flavor. I was curious as to how she prepared them, and when she detailed her recipe for roasting, I thought I would give it a try. I went to the farmers’ market, bought some fresh beets and have been addicted ever since. Beets are now a staple of my summer garden, and each season, I enjoy experimenting with a different variety.
Traditional red beet varieties like Red Ace, Detroit Dark Red, and Kestrel are standard fare in my garden. They’re nice, but my heart belongs to two varieties of heirloom beets: Chioggia and Golden.
Chioggia, brought to the U.S. from Italy in the 1840s, is both beautiful and sweet. When cut crosswise, Chioggia displays concentric rings of pink and white circles, making it look like a bull’s-eye. I love to use it in stir-fries because it doesn’t bleed like regular red beets, and its flavor is very mild and lacks the dirty aftertaste of some other varieties.
Eating a Golden beet is both a feast for the eyes and the taste buds. With orange skin and bright-yellow flesh, the Golden has a sweet, buttery flavor that will convert even the most beet-squeamish diner into a fan. It’s truly my favorite summer vegetable, both for taste and beauty in the garden and on the plate.
Beet the Competition
To grow the best beets on the block (no matter which variety strikes your fancy) here are a few growing tips:
- Each beet seed is actually a cluster of several seeds, so be prepared to thin your crop. While this process may induce some guilt, proper thinning will lead to better-developed roots and healthier greens. Plus, the thinnings make nice additions to summer salads and stir-fries. A newish cultivar called Moneta Monogerm (available at www.highmowingseeds.com) is named as such because one of its seeds equals one beet, meaning no thinning is required.
- Planting a row of beet seeds every two weeks through early summer and into early July, allows for continual harvests well into the autumn.
- Because beets are a root crop, they use a lot of phosphorus. Sidedress seedlings with an organic granular fertilizer slightly higher in this essential nutrient. Bonemeal and rock phosphate are two good fertilizer choices. Of course, regular additions of quality compost also add ample amounts of phosphorus and help build good soil structure, as well.
- For long term storage of harvested beets, remove the greens and pack the roots into wooden crates of slightly damp sand. Store the crates in a root cellar or other dark, cool location.
- To discourage tunneling root maggots and leaf miners, cover new beet seedlings with floating row covers. This lightweight fabric keeps the adult pests from laying eggs on the plants and also protects fall crops from light frosts.
Baby beets can be harvested as soon as the roots reach 1 inch in diameter, and larger beets are best picked when they are between 1 and 3 inches across. The flesh can get woody and tough if the roots are allowed to grow too large, so harvest frequently. Steam, sauté, stir-fry, boil, grill, can and pickle them—or follow Chris’s roasted beet recipe outlined below. Enjoy!
Recipe: Roasted Summer Beets
- 4 large beets, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
- 2 T. extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 tsp. fresh ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp. salt (or seasoning mix)
- 2 tsp. fresh, chopped chives
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
Toss everything together then put into a shallow covered casserole dish. Bake at 375 degrees F for about an hour or until beets can be easily pierced with a fork. You can also wrap the beet mixture in aluminum foil and place the package on the grill on medium-low for about 45 minutes.
Have a wonderful, and delicious, summer.
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