Beets are a treat all season long. In spring, baby beet greens in a salad are tasty and colorful. In late spring, baby beets are small, sweet and delicious, raw or cooked. By midsummer, beets are at their peak, I think. Now medium-sized, they are sweet and flavorful, without being woody, good-sized and well worth the trouble it takes to prepare them. And beet greens can be eaten all season, chopped as salad, sauteed or steamed.
Beets are older than history. They thrived wild across the northern hemisphere from Europe to the Indian sub-continent. The ancient Greeks first ascribed medicinal qualities to beet greens which made the greens alone popular throughout the Mediterranean world. Around the third century CE, beet roots were first declared delicious and became standard fare.
Beets are pure sucrose, containing more sugar than any other vegetable, which is why they taste so good to us. It makes them, along with carrots, a natural way to sweeten stews, roasts, condiments and salads. Beets are best known for their deep crimson color. Red beets contain betacyanin, the red pigment to which some people are intolerant and which passes through their systems with startling consequences. Now golden, orange, white and chiaggio, pink and white-stripped, beets are common hybrids with more delicate flavors and are equally colorful without betacyanin. Plus the bright, colorful hybrids mixed with red beets make a beautiful dish together.
Usually I roast beets because it augments the sweet flavors. (You can also boil and steam beets. See below.) I try to pick beets of a variety of colors that are about the same size so they require the same baking time. (Small beets cook a lot faster than large beets so if you’re roasting different sizes together, you have to check them more often and remove the smaller ones first.) I wash them thoroughly, scrubbing off any dirty, and trim off the leafy greens and most of the stem. (Trimmed beets will keep in the refrigerator for over a week.) I leave on the skin, tops and short tails for roasting to keep in the flavors and the pigmented juices: it’s just easier to clean up when I remove the skins and trim off tops and bottoms after roasting. Coat in olive oil and put in a lipped baking sheet or sheet cake pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 1-1.5 hours, until soft when forked. Once warm and no longer hot, remove skins, tops and stems so you have just the sweet, roasted flesh of the beet.
In summer, I prepare beet salads. Most often, I cut the roasted beets into chunks, adding goat cheese, olive oil, toasted pecan halves and tarragon. Other variations are omitting the cheese and adding marjoram and pine nuts or diced red onion and walnuts to the beets. You can add to salad greens or arrange over chopped beet greens or arugula. All are delicious, beautiful summer salads.
Obviously, roasted beets can also be sliced or mashed, and served as a chutney-like condiment or stirred into hummus. Beets are great in soups and make fabulous chips. If you steam beets, fork and steam for 30-90 minutes depending on size. Boiled beets usually are peeled first, then boiled 30-90 minutes depending on size.
In her Produce Bible, Leanne Kitchen recommends chopping beet greens, sauteing in olive oil with garlic, anchovies, currants and red wine vinegar. Yummy.