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Beets, the old and new school root

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Beets, historically an old school winter storage vegetable, are more popular than ever. Today farmers are selling dozens of varieties of all different shapes, sizes and colors to hip foodies and chefs who have elevated the vegetable to a sexy new status with trendy new recipes.

The vegetable’s appeal has transcended seasons, finding a permanent place on spring and summer menus at “fresh local” bistros throughout the Capital Region, New York City and the Hudson Valley. No one seems to remember that not long ago beets were considered “a food that only grandma liked”. Today even pickled beets have found high brow appreciation with boutique producers who have included their twist on the classic among the other pickles, chutneys and relishes in their product lines.

With so many beet varieties available at farmers markets, there seem to be just as many ways to cook them. Or not cook them…. Beets are also delicious raw, sliced thinly and tossed in a salad, or juiced and pureed. At Hawthorne Valley Farm in Harlemville “Sauerkraut Seth” lacto-ferments raw beets into Kvaas, a Russian beet drink known for its detoxifying properties.

Most chefs have a very particular outlook on how beets should be cooked. Many are still firm believers that they should be boiled – an hour for smaller beets and up to an hour and a half for the larger ones. Others prefer to cook beets by roasting them in a hot oven.

One roasting method involves lining a baking pan with coarsely ground salt, placing the beets on top and roasting them until they are tender – an hour or more depending on their size (the salt acts as a buffer between the bottom of the beets and the surface of the hot pan).

Some chefs will wrap a cluster of three to four beets in aluminum foil and roast them in a hot oven. With this method the beets are actually steamed as a result of being enclosed in the foil. Alice Waters, famed “fresh local” owner of Chez Panisse in California, recommends roasting beets in a pan with an inch of water, which is another way to ensure a burn-free barrier between the beet bottoms and the hot surface of the roasting pan.

Look for local beets at the Honest Weight Food Co-op, the Berry Farm and the Chatham Real Food Co-op (both are stocking beets from Little Seed Gardens), and Schoharie Valley Farms. Order locally pickled beets on-line from Beth’s Farm Kitchen, Black Dirt Gourmet and Rick’s Picks.

Pickled beet recipe

24 small beets
1 cup cooking liquid
1 pint vinegar
1 1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons salt
6 whole cloves
1 stick cinnamon
3 small onions sliced

Cook beets in boiling water until tender, then peel and slice. Add the sliced beets and onions and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick and pack the beets into sterilized jars. Ladle the cooking liquid to within a 1/2 inch of the jar top. Adjust lids. Process by the hot water bath method for 10 minutes.

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