A bit about beets

To say this past week was hectic would be a bit of an understatement! For a couple of days, I felt as if I were a dog chasing his tail. The funeral for my brother-in-law was on Thursday, with the rosary service the evening before. Everything was beautiful and very well organized, as my sister and her daughters did a wonderful job, even with a few obstacles being encountered. There was not a whole lot I could other than be there for some moral support.
Friday was our Hospital Auxiliary annual awards banquet, I had plenty of help, and luckily a lot of things were already finished beforehand. Several of us went to the meeting room we were using at a local church and started covering tables and working on centerpieces, and as the old saying goes “many hands make light work”, we had it finished in plenty of time. And, of course, as with anything of this type, we had a couple of glitches that worked out just fine. The food was catered by a nearby restaurant, and as always it was very good.
When is the last time you ate beets? Have you ever eaten beets; did you like them? Most of us never think of whether we like beets or not, right? We just look at them in their cans on the shelf and think, “they’re sure a pretty color, but what would I do with them?” Or, if we see them on a salad bar, we just ignore them because we have never tried them and probably don’t want too! They seem to be either increasing in popularity, or either they’re just being advertised more, as they are one of the featured items in my current issue of Cooks, Illustrated®. Their recipe is for borscht, a soup very common in the Ukraine. It looks interesting; however, it also looks as if it is quite a bit of work!
Since I was raised during the WWII years, with grandparents who had gardens and a Dad who worked in a grocery store, I learned to eat beets. They do taste good if they are fixed correctly, even if they come out of a can. Just straight from the can, they don’t taste very good and when you look at them in the produce aisle at the grocery store or a farmers’ market, you thought is “how on earth would you cook something like that?” So, today, to clear up a little of the mystery about beets, I will tell you a little bit about them.
My information is from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
There are many varieties of beets that include the leafy varieties called chard and spinach beet, the beetroot or garden beet and also the sugar beet that is used to make table sugar.
All of the cultivated varieties are in the subspecies Beta vulgaris subp. vulgaris, while Beta vulgaris subp. martima, the common name for the sea beet, is the wild ancestor of these.
The history of the beet goes back to the second millennium BC. It was probably domesticated along the Mediterranean, and later spread to Babylonia by the 8th century BC and from there as far toward the east as China by 850 AD. Evidence shows that the leafy varieties were most widely cultivated for much of its history. However, much later they lost some of their popularity with the introduction of spinach.
Beets became very important commercially in the 19th century in Europe, after the development of the sugar beet in Germany, when it was discovered that sucrose could be extracted from them. This discovery provided an alternative to the tropical sugar cane and to this day, beets remain a widely cultivated commercial crop for producing table sugar.
To cook beets at home after purchasing them from the store or from a farmers’ market, you scrub them well, place them in a pot, cover them with water and cook them until they are done. The peels will slip off just as the peels from peaches and tomatoes come off when they are dipped into boiling water. After they are cooked, they can be eaten as a hot dish with butter, they can be pickled and chilled and eaten cold as a condiment, (and this is the most common way they are eaten in our areas), or they can be shredded raw and eaten as a salad. The pickled beets are a traditional food of the American South and believe it or not, according to the information I have, in Australia and New Zealand, it is common for sliced, pickled beets to be served on a hamburger.
A traditional dish of the Pennsylvania Dutch is to use the left-over pickling liquid and place hard cooked eggs in it and store in the fridge until the eggs turn a deep pink/red color.
While I was in this site, I also looked up “beet recipes” and many were for salads with the addition of feta, blue or goat cheese. Many of them also had lime, orange or lemon juice as an addition, along with arugula, water cress, shallots, apples and the list goes on and on. In checking through cookbooks, I found recipes using beets in cakes and cookies, which seems a really sneaky way to get you family to eat a dish they might tell you they don’t like. As for myself, I have eaten them prepared with a thickened sauce, (Harvard beets), as well as just plain with butter, salt and pepper, but my favorite, if I am going to eat beets, is pickled.
When I lived in Devine, especially when the children were small, my grandma and aunt from La Coste and I would can beets. We cooked the beets, peeled them and cut them into chunks or slices, made up a hot mixture of vinegar, sugar and the liquid from cooking the beets and placed them in quart jars, sealed them shut and I truly don’t remember if we processed them or not, as too many years have gone by. Also, in later years, a friend, who had a big garden, would pick the leaves of the plants when they were small and cook them just as you would cook spinach. They were good served this way.
Pickled Beets
2 or 3 cans sliced beets (can use the cut pieces or quarters if desired)
Equal parts, sugar, vinegar, liquid
Open the cans and drain the liquid from the beets and set aside. Place the beets in a bowl and set aside. Measure out 1 cup sugar, 1 cup of the beet liquid or water, and ¾ to 1 cup vinegar, place in a pot and heat until the sugar is completely dissolved and then pour over the beets in the bowl. Chill thoroughly before serving. This is how my grandma made her pickled beets. Many cooks do not heat the mixture, they just stir until the sugar is dissolved and pour it over the beets, and still others add pickling spices to the mixture; it truly is a matter of personal preference.
Harvard Beets
2 cans sliced beets, drained and liquid set aside
½ cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons corn starch
¼ cup vinegar
¼ cup beet liquid
2 tablespoons cooking oil
Combine sugar, cornstarch, vinegar, beet liquid and oil and bring to a boil and cook for 5 minutes. Stir in the beets and cook at simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes.
Now, I know I mentioned a cake made with beets, and, I found recipes for sauerkraut cake, poppy seed cake, carrot cake, potato cake, wacky cake, pork cake, watermelon cake and all sorts of other cakes using vegetables and/or fruits but could not find the one using beets. It was called, of all things, “Beatnick Cake”, but without spending several hours going through cookbooks, I can’t find it this morning! Believe it or not, here it is ten or twelve years down the line, and I decided to use this column about beets again, and in the cookbook made by the women of the Moore Library Committee, I found the “Beatnik Cake”! The ladies on the committee were Octavia Jones, Chairman; Alice Terry, Betty Gentry, Wanda Salzman and Ann Wofford.
Beatnik Cake
Laura Petri
1½ cups ground beets
½ teaspoon baking soda
1½ cups sugar
1¼ cups cooking oil
1 7/8 cups flour
¾ teaspoon salt
3 eggs
½ teaspoon vanilla
6 tablespoons cocoa
1 teaspoon lard
Cream sugar, egg, and oil. Add beets, cocoa, lard, flour, baking soda, salt and vanilla. Bake in a loaf pan. Ice with favorite icing.
(It does not say whether the beets should be cooked or not. However, since I’ve been seeing recipes using beets recently and they are shredding them raw for salads, that could be the way you would use them. I can’t quite see grinding a cooked beet, the texture is similar to cooked carrots).