The Savory Delights of Beets

From leaf to root, beets deliver. For best results, remember to be as bold as they are.

Fresh harvested beetroots in wooden crate

Beets are not a dainty vegetable.

I’m thinking of a friend who still recalls a very colorful meatless burger she ordered in San Francisco. Its patty was tinged through and through with the staining purplish-red of beet juice. Bleeding, she said. She told me this while carving into a juicy slab of prime rib the size of a hubcap.

There was a lot to unpack in that moment—about the futility of meat substitutes and the distance we knowingly place between us and our food—but what stuck with me was the simple fact that my hungry friend felt squeamish about
a vegetable.

Beets stain. They seep into things and stay there. From my childhood I remember the pickled-beet eggs my father used to make to honor his Amish-country upbringing. I remember the vinegary red of the pickling juice and the Easter-egg pink of his hands, stained to the wrist from plunging them into a cooling pot of boiled beets. He peeled them all by hand, so the little valleys under and around his fingernails stayed red for days.

For many of us, beets are synonymous with this vivid redness. But it wasn’t always that way. For much of human history, we harvested beets for their edi- ble leaves, not their staining roots. The heart-shaped leaves, veined with thick stalks, come in a range of colors. They are closely related to chard and are among the most nourishing foods we can eat.

So a thrifty cook should never toss beet greens into the compost heap. They taste more bitter than chard but are every bit as nourishing, if eaten immediately. I wash them well, sauté with lemon juice and crushed garlic, and look forward to the sweeter main event.

Here’s something else to know: the lighter the color, the sweeter the beet. Sugar beets (used for re ned-sugar production) are alabaster-white and not nearly so nutritiously rich as their red cousin. The sweet ones are nice enough—but who ever got swept away by niceness? I say beets are best enjoyed at their plainest, roughest, and reddest. Not in meticulously composed salads dotted with veined cheeses and candied nuts but boiled and drained and slathered with butter turned pink.

My steak-eating friend who was overtaken by the bloodiness of her beet sandwich knows: beets are evocative. While other vegetables keep to them- selves, a good beet gives of itself entirely. It bleeds. It blushes. And when we speak of them outside of the kitchen, it’s almost always in relation to strong feelings. If we were to ascribe personalities to our vegetables, wouldn’t beets be lovers and ghters?

And when it comes to food, as in relationships, who doesn’t enjoy a little edge, an occasional bitterness, a lusty payo ?

Beet Chips

Makes 3 cups

1 bunch red (or yellow) beets 1⁄3 cup white (or

brown) rice our 2 1⁄2 cups canola oil

salt, to serve

Peel the beets and slice them finely with a mandoline. Pat the slices dry with a towel. In a large mixing bowl, add the rice our. Toss in the beet slices and coat them well on all sides. Remove the excess our.

Pour the canola oil into a medium-size pot. Heat to 365°F (use a deep-fry thermometer to check). Add a batch of beet slices, making sure you’re not overcrowding. Fry the beets for 2 to 3 minutes, checking regularly to ensure they don’t overcook; they should curl up on the edges and look crispy. Transfer to paper towels to absorb the excess oil, then repeat with another batch of beet slices (check the temperature of the oil regularly to make sure it stays at 365°F). Once cooked, let the beet chips cool completely. Transfer to a bowl and sprinkle with salt.