Cooking from The Farms: Beets

My father’s garden ran along three sides of our backyard, three neat straight beds of vegetables and flowers.

And in the summer, my brother and I would walk the perimeter with him when he came home from work, looking at the plants’ progress, and to this day I remember where he placed everything.  Along the border between our house and the neighbors to our left, he grew corn, then zucchini squash, rhododendrons, and finally several varieties of tomatoes all the way to the back fence.  The right hand border was mainly devoted to flowers (peonies, zinnias, petunias, impatiens, mums) until finally, under the shade of the cherry tree, he broke the flowers’ stronghold with swiss chard and potatoes.  The third row ran along the foundation of the back of our house.  Here, my father planted his prized peppers.  Without fail we ended our survey of the garden at the peppers.  When one looked red enough and hot enough to him, he picked it and we all went inside to the supper table where he would slice the pepper onto whatever my mother had made for a meal.

I have always loved fresh fruits and vegetables; from my father I learned to cook them and eat them and love them.  Given this affinity you might assume I, too, am a dedicated gardener.  But nothing could be further from the truth.

I love the produce but not the work.  I know plenty of people who love their gardens, and love toiling in their gardens.  I feel their passion and sometimes wish it were mine.  But much like I’d rather sew than knit, I’d rather cook than garden.  One requires immediate action, the other a slow and steady patience I simply don’t possess.

I don’t have the patience to nurture seedlings, to weed, or to remember which plants like what kind of sun, full or partial, and as a result I tend to doom anything I put into the ground to a slow and painful death.  Green things turn brown and leggy.  Or waterlogged and droopy.  Or choked and gasping.  When I see only sickly results, I make a quick downward spiral into neglect, as in “What’s the point?  I can’t do anything right, anyway.”

After many frustrations, I have learned to be happy leaving the gardening to other, more capable hands.

Luckily, I am surrounded by farms and have many favorite spots for buying local produce in season.  This year, thanks to the burgeoning trend of community supported agriculture (CSA), I am part of two local farms’ growing seasons.  They received my enrollment money at the end of the winter, money which provides the seed money (pun intended) for their crops, and now I have the luxury of just pulled, snipped, or picked vegetables and fruits for my meals every week.  With a CSA I can be a part of the farm without taking part in the farming, a good arrangement all around.

This week, Heron Pond Farm gave me my weekly share of spring beet greens…with the beets attached.  The greens I expected – they had been a listed crop in the farm’s weekly email update –  and had already intended to stir them into a white bean and pasta soup.  The beets, however, were an unexpected treat.

I have always loved beets and ate a lot of them growing up, but I grew inordinately fond of them later in life, when pregnant with my son.  Our family spent a stretch of time living with my in-laws between moving homes from Champaign, Illinois to Poulsbo, Washington.  Several nights at suppertime, my mother-in-law would set out a glass dish of home-pickled beets to go along with whatever she served.  The beets weren’t usually the starring vegetable, but neither were they an afterthought.  Instead, Theresa’s pickled beets enhanced every other dish on the table, brightened flavors, added depth to the meal.

Maybe my fondness was due to a pregnancy craving; if so, it is one craving that has stayed with me.  But I suspect it has more to do with the care and attention expressed by my mother-in-law through adding something both delicious and glisteningly bright purple to the table.  Now I too think of these beets as the condiment or relish of a meal, that simple gesture you can make that will somehow transform everything.

Theresa Ward’s Pickled Beets

These beets are a snap to make and, as they are meant to eat right away and over the course of only a few days, require no canning equipment.  I have pickled every kind of beet – golden, the standard purply red, and Chioggia (or as I like to call them, candy striped) – and all are tasty and pretty.  If you care to make several types at once, make separate batches.  Purple beets have the habit of turning everything they touch purple, which includes your golden beet or the pretty white circles running through the dark pink Chioggia.  To cook the beets, my mother-in-law roasts them, unpeeled, in foil.  Roasted beets won’t be as messy as boiled, and they seem to retain more color this way.  When cooled, the beets are ready for peeling.  Wear gloves to keep your skin stain-free.

  • 1 pound of beets, any variety
  • ½ cup cider vinegar
  • ½ cup water
  • 2 Tbsp. sugar
  • 1/8 tsp. pepper
  • 1/8 tsp. salt
  • 1 small to medium red onion, thinly sliced (optional)*

Wash beets well.

Place washed beets, unpeeled, on a large sheet of aluminum foil.  Fold the foil over the beets and seal all edges well.  Place the foil packet on a baking sheet and bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 30-45 minutes, depending on the size of the beets.  Small beets may be done in as little as 30 minutes while larger beets will take longer.

To test for doneness, remove foil from oven, carefully unseal, and poke through the center of a beet with a sharp knife.  The knife should go in and come out easily.

When the beets are done, let them cool slightly then peel them and slice them to about 1/8-inch thickness.

Place in a quart-size glass dish and set aside.

Bring vinegar, water, and sugar to a boil in a small saucepan just until sugar dissolves.  Add salt and pepper and remove immediately from the heat.  Pour this over the beets, shake lightly to distribute, and cover.

Refrigerate until serving time.  Strain with a slotted spoon to serve.

*I sometimes add a sliced onion to the glass dish to pickle along with the standard purple beets.  The onion adds another layer of flavor and looks very pretty.  The beets with their vibrantly dyed pickled onions make a great addition to a salad.

©2010  Jane Ward