May 25, 2016 | Rome, Italy | Sunny 18°C

And the beet goes on

By Suzanne Dunaway
Published: 2016-05-08

These days, beets occupy the spotlight.

70-year-old garden guru who lived next door to me while I was living in Los Angeles changed my attitude toward beets forever.

These days, beets occupy the spotlight — on mesclun with warm goat cheese, roasted until crisp and caramelized, or shredded and sautéed until almost black with a pinch of sugar and a drop of lemon.

It's newfound fame.

Did your kids eat beets when they were young? Do you eat beets? Or do you consciously keep them off your grocery list?

I'd pass them by when plotting my spring garden, thinking how difficult it might be to disguise them in cooking when they came of harvest age. In the kitchen I'd always seem to drop a beet slice or two on something white while preparing them, leaving me with a pink and white tee or re-colored pants.

But thanks to my garden guru I gradually learned virtues and gastronomic pleasures of those hard globes. I devoted a quarter of the garden to Burpee Hybrid Golds, Chioggia beets (with their lovely red and white striped center), and dark Ruby Queens.

My guru offered free compost to anyone with a bucket and strong arm, so I began by adding his riches to my existing soil along with blood and bone meal (found at all nurseries). When the soil was damp, I mixed a little sand in with the seeds and sowed them sparsely down the rows. It's important to remember that beet seed produces many plants and experts say that it's best to plant them one by one. But I am not one of those gardeners. I sprinkled the seeds into a shallow trench haphazardly — the way I often plant all my seeds. I concluded with a beet mantra.

When the babies are tiny and crowding one another, I pull out the smallest ones and put them in salads, leaving the survivors to get on with it.

If you undertake this pleasant task, water the seeds lightly and keep them damp until the little sprouts begin growing on their own. The time for planting is spring, early spring is best, and you may continue until early summer, then begin in fall for another crop.

The nicest thing about beets is that you get three crops from one planting. The tiny babies are best tossed in salads. Tender, ping-pong ball size beets should be steamed quickly and eaten with lemon and butter or olive oil. As for the piece de resistance, the fully mature globes, slice them thin and roast them in the oven with olive oil until they almost become beet chips, along with their green leaf tops, which can have a cotton candy texture in the mouth.

You may also pickle beets by cooking them in salted water until just tender and then, using 20 percent of the cooking water, 40 percent good wine vinegar, and 40 percent red wine (the two boiled together for a few minutes), let them sit in this magic potion for a week or so until use. An easier way to pickle is to fill about four-fifths of a large jar with the vinegar and wine mix, then add the salted beet water to cover.

A few slices of garlic or a branch of dill will up the ante.

I also love dropping hard-boiled eggs into the cooled beet water along with slices of spring onions. Let them rest for a day or so in the fridge to take on color, and then serve both onions and beets sliced or chopped and tossed with olive oil and lemon for a quick antipasto.

For a ruby-red summer soup for four people, cook half a dozen large beets with a sweet onion, chopped coarse, in chicken broth until very tender. Let cool and purée in a food processor or use a hand whizzer to make a smooth texture and chill until cold. For a silkier soup, rub the puré through a sieve. Add a squeeze of lemon, fresh ground pepper and a little chopped fresh mint or basil over each dish and serve the crispy beet tops as a contorno (side dish). A small dollop of mascarpone wouldn't hurt either.

Think of yourself as creating another... beet generation.

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Suzanne Dunaway

Suzanne divides her time between the U.S, Italy and southern France.

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