(This photo was taken sans Instagram. Beets are just that moody.)
Beets are divisive. Beets are controversial. Beets are polemical. Some people love them (me!) and some people are....lukewarm (you know who you are...) And I spend a good chunk of my cooking life (which is a good chunk of my entire life) trying to convert the beet-haters out there.
I say: “have you REALLY had a good beet? Maybe you've just had bad, old, poorly cooked beets."
I tell them how good beets taste, how good they are for a body.
The only thing I don’t adore about beets is roasting them in the sultry heat of a Brooklyn summer. A big beet can take over an hour to roast all the way through, and when it’s 95 degrees outside (as it pretty much has been for the last week,) roasting beets are about the last thing on my mind.
But cold, sliced beets, marinated with olive oil and vinegar are some of the best summer eating there is.
I received some devastatingly beautiful beets this week, in their lively entirety, from my CSA. So I skipped roasting them and steamed/poached them on the stovetop instead. They took 20 minutes. They didn't heat up the house. And they were fab.
In addition to my CSA beets, I had some yellow beets in the fridge that I threw in the mix. This wonderful Technicolor display won’t last of course; red beets bleed onto everything they come into contact with. (If you cooked them separately, you could toss them together at the last minute to maintain the color contrast, at least for a little while, the red beets will inevitably win.)
Every part of the beet plant is edible. When I get them whole, I will often wash up the greens (which keep forever) and toss them into pasta as I do with other hearty leafy things. If the leaves taste slightly sweet and earthy, the stems, that much closer to the sweet beet itself, are somewhere in the middle flavor-wise. They’re crunchy and mild, but do indeed have a taste reminiscent of their subterranean counterparts. Beet stems are great sliced up and tossed into stews and soups but it’s far from soup weather these days, so I pickled them (I've been in a pickling mood, check out my recent bread and butter pickle recipe for the NY Times).
I sliced up my beet stems into what looked like sparkling little rubies. I’ve had some coconut sugar in my pantry for a little while, and I thought I'd try it out in place of regular sugar. It has a much deeper flavor than standard table sugar, with almost a molasses-like color when it’s dissolved. I used white wine vinegar, but cider vinegar could be delicious too. As a final addition to my quick-pickle, I plucked some lemon thyme from the deck and tossed it into the pot.
I decided, while I was at it, I’d try my hand at giving the surplus of radishes in the vegetable drawer the quick-pickle treatment too.
Once everything was cool, I tossed the beets in a bit of really good olive oil, and then added the beet stem and radish pickles to taste, along with some of the pickling liquid to season it up. I’d say I added about four heaping tablespoons (two of each.) But you should add it to taste.
The simple, perfectly tender beets were made addictevely delicious by the complex flavor pops of the pickles (the coconut sugar rocked) and a showering of torn fresh basil. With lots of little pretty pickles leftover (they’ll keep for at least a month in the fridge,) I can already imagine they’ll be making appearances on hearty sandwiches, in cool salads, or maybe even as elegant finishes to bloody colored deviled eggs. Beets just make perfect sense in the summer.
You listening, beet-haters?
Summer Beet Salad with Pickled Beet Stems
4 cups peeled, cubed beets
2 Bay leaves
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 cup coconut sugar
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon fresh lemon thyme leaves
1 teaspoon dill seed
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups sliced beet stems
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Fresh basil leaves
1. In a large skillet, add beets, bay leaves, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and enough water to completely cover the bottom of the skillet by about a 1/4 inch. Over high heat, bring to a boil and then reduce heat to medium-low and cover. Give beets a stir after about 10 minutes and check to make sure plenty of water remains—you don’t want all the water to evaporate. Continue cooking, covered, until beets are fork-tender and cooked through, about 7-10 more minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer beets to a large bowl and allow to cool.
2. In a medium sauce pan over high heat, add vinegar, coconut sugar, garlic, coriander seed, salt, thyme leaves, dill seed, and black pepper and bring to a boil, stirring until coconut sugar and salt are completely dissolved. Remove from heat.
3. Add beet stems to sauce pan and stir. Let sit, uncovered, for about 1 hour.
4. Add olive oil to beets and toss to coat. Add about 4 tablespoons of pickled beet stems to beets and toss to incorporate. Finish with torn basil leaves before serving.
Store your pickled beet stems (or radishes, or _____?) in their pickling liquid in a covered jar in your fridge for up to a month.