One Ingredient, Many Ways: Beets

Helen Rosner

Like many college freshmen, I went through a hot and heavy Tom Robbins phase. On a friend's breathless recommendation I read Skinny Legs And All, and then fell immediately into a rapturous black hole, devouring within the span of a semester every sprawling, fantastical book the novelist-guru had ever written. So when Robbins wrote an ode to beets in the opening pages of Jitterbug Perfume, I paid close attention:

The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is the more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious.

Ten years later, I find my old literary crush a little bit silly. I'm older now and less easily charmed by whimsy and wordplay. Still, while my love for Robbins has faded with time, the curiosity he sparked for me about the sweet, ruby-colored vegetable remains. Beets, it turns out, are pretty magical on their own - even without poetic embellishment.

Beets, it turns out, are pretty magical on their own - even without poetic embellishment.

The bulbous red root we know as a beet is a surprisingly modern vegetable. Its wild ancestor, which grew in the Mediterranean region, more closely resembled chard or spinach (to which beets are related) than today's beetroot. The Ancient Greeks and Romans cultivated wild beets for both culinary and medicinal uses and helped spread them throughout northern Europe. The beetroot became a dietary staple (think borscht and pickled beets), prized for its heartiness in storage cellars over the cold winter months. In the 18th century, German scientists developed a process for extracting sucrose from sugar beets, solidifying the beet's place in our larder for centuries to come.

Beet season typically begins in early summer - where I live, in New York City, the first leafy bunches begin to appear on farmers' market tables in June - and they're available through the fall. The dark red version is the best known, but beets can be found in a variety of colors ranging from golden, to white (called an Albino) to the fuchsia-striped Chioggia. Earthy and naturally sweet, they pair perfectly with tart, tangy and nutty flavors. These recipes capitalize on the beet's versatility, showcasing it in everything from to cocktails to cupcakes.

SWEET

Sweet-Cherry Spoon Sweet
Spring cherries and bright red beets come together in this syrupy preserve.

Epicurious: Scarlet Poached Pears
Beets punch up the scarlet color and floral sweetness of wine poached pears.

Barefoot Kitchen Witch: Pink Beet Cupcakes

These princess pink cupcakes get topped with a tart lime-green frosting.

SAVORY

Beets with Tarragon Butter
Dress up plain boiled beets (red or golden) with a slip of rich tarragon-scented butter.

Spelt Risotto with Beets and Horseradish
This unusual dish pairs beets and spicy horseradish in a silky spelt risotto.

Pickled Beets and Hard Cooked Eggs
Pickled beets add glorious ruby color to hardboiled eggs.

The Kitchn: Roasted Beets and Sauteed Greens with Hazelnuts
Beet greens are just as delicious as the root; this recipe combines both with hazelnuts and goat cheese.

DRINK

Eggs on Sunday: Beet Bubbly
Homemade beet syrup, cinnamon, maple syrup, cayenne and sparkling wine join forces to make one glorious cocktail.

Beet Pink Lemonade
This hot pink lemonade gets its vibrant color and extra boost of sweetness from beets.