Beets get a bad rap. Often, lips are curled up in disgust when the subject comes up. Surprising, given their sweet earthiness. After all, most humans love taking a bite of something that tickles their sweet tooth, even if it isn’t of the commitment-laden dessert variety.
Beetroots, not sugarbeets, are the variety that most people easily identify: those deep red, fist-sized knobs on display in food emporiums are hard to miss. During the summer months, farmers proudly display their red beets, as well as golden and variegated varieties, at their stands at Farmers’ Markets. Typically planted in the early spring and harvested throughout the summer, beets store well for consumption throughout the year, so they feature regularly on restaurant menus, even well into the winter.
During the summer months, roasting, grilling, sautéing and grating are wonderful ways in which to prepare these little understood beauties, sometimes combining varieties to kick up the color palette on a plate. Some cooks even mix them with their lightly sautéed greens to make a crunchy salad. A famous Pennsylvania Dutch recipe yields bright pink hard-boiled eggs by refrigerating them in beet juice. A popular Polish condiment mixes beets with horseradish to add to meat and potatoes. In the Southern US, homemakers compete with each other for the best pickled beets recipes, used in salads and on hamburgers for added flavor.
But when asked to name a dish whose key ingredient is beetroot, most people will say ‘Borscht’. And when uttering this word, most of them will make a face that clearly advertises their feelings on the subject, which is sad, because either they have never tried it, or on the one occasion they bravely dipped a spoon into a bowl for a nibble, they inadvertently stumbled onto the chef d’oeuvre of a particularly bad cook. A really good bowl of Borscht, typically served alongside a hefty chunk of dark bread and topped with a generous dollop of sour cream, is a true delight.
Originally from Ukraine, Eastern and Central Europe, the invention of Borscht makes perfect sense. Root vegetables store well in a properly maintained root cellars, and, combined with other ingredients such as garlic, cabbage, potatoes and carrots, were easy to make into a filling and nutritious soup. While chilled Borscht is what most people think of when that lip-curling word is bantered about, the steaming hot version served throughout the cold winter months is far more common in the countries of its origin. And since beetroots are wonderful sources of vitamin C, folates, niacin, magnesium, iron and potassium, a healthy portion of this gorgeous purpley-red soup probably went a long way to keep people healthy during the peak of flu season. So next time you see beets beckoning you from the produce isle, use them to make up a big batch of soup, knowing you’ll be pleasing your palette and nourishing your body, all in one delicious bite.