This post originally appeared in the Bloomington Herald Times on July 13, 2005

Some people say beets taste like dirt and, I’m just guessing, they don’t see that as a plus. But in a strange and lovely way beets do taste of the Earth – of rain and rocks and minerals overlaid with a profound sugary sweetness. When I cut into a fresh raw beet, it smells of a cool basement on a hot day – tempting me into its subterranean depths. Beets are an extraordinary vegetable – complex, mysterious, radiant with color.

At a recent dinner party, I served a salad of diced roasted beets, dressed with a vinaigrette of pistachio oil, chardonnay vinegar and tarragon, with some chopped toasted pistachio nuts sprinkled on top. The little cubes of beets shimmered and glistened like rubies and tasted like candy, the sweetness of the beets highlighted by the smoky oil, the licorice kiss of the tarragon and the salty crunch of the nuts. One of my guests looked dumfounded. “I love these beets,” he said. “And I hate beets.”

I hear that kind of thing a lot from my friends who think they don’t like the various oddball vegetables that I love to cook and eat. It isn’t that I am such great shakes in the kitchen, but I have a passion for the eggplants and brussels sprouts, and endives and radicchios and beets that so many of us learn to hate as kids. I love their big, robust flavors, the interplay of bitter and sweet and the wonderful ways they respond to cooking and being dressed with vinegars and oils and cheeses and nuts and herbs. I think my friends love my outcast vegetables because I love them, and because I cook them with a cherishing hand. Who among us is not at our best when touched by a lover?

And there is plenty to love about a beet, once you get past the dirt thing. They are super sweet (we get sugar from beets, don’t forget) but low in calories and full of good vitamins and minerals. Their leaves are as delicious as the roots we more commonly eat, tasting like a cross between spinach and beets (very closely related to chard, another wonderful vegetable). And beets not only come in the stunning garnet red color, but in gold, white and striped varieties. (All are available at our Saturday market.)

Beets can be cooked in all sorts of ways, from boiling to sautéing, but my favorite is to roast them (unless I just eat them raw, shredded into a mustardy vinaigrette -yum!) The taste of a roasted beet is phenomenal – the sugars caramelize and an already sweet vegetable gets even sweeter, its beetiness gets more intense. Besides, roasting is such an easy way to prepare a vegetable that can be incredibly messy. If you aren’t careful, preparing beets can leave your kitchen looking like a slaughterhouse; they bleed that rich crimson juice all over. Even roasted beets will still bleed a lot of juice when you peel them. This is why the culinary gods made aprons. Use them.

Once they are roasted and peeled, they are ready for anything. Eat them warm, with butter, salt and pepper. Pickle them. Toss them in salads with goat cheese, or blue cheese, with walnuts or pistachios or hazelnuts. Puree them into soups, hot or cold, with a dollop of horseradish sour cream. Want to take a little more trouble? Northern Italians make beet ravioli, tossed with butter and cheese and poppy seeds. This dish is luminous, with the rich red beets glowing through the translucent pasta. Simple, stunning and fabulous. Even if you hate beets, you will love them.

Beet Ravioli

1 to 1 1/2 pounds medium red beets, scrubbed and trimmed of all but 1/2 inch of the greens
1/2 cup ricotta cheese
1 egg
2-3 tablespoons dry bread crumbs
Salt and pepper
1 stick butter
2 tablespoons poppy seeds
Freshly grated pecorino cheese
1 package wonton wrappers (feel free to make fresh pasta if you have the time and inclination)
1 more egg, lightly beaten
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wrap beets in heavy foil, making packages of several beets, and put on baking sheet. Roast until done, about 1 1/2 hours.

When you can handle the beets, cut the greens off and rub the skin – it should come off easily, helped along with a paring knife. I do this right over the foil to contain the mess.

Chop the beets in a food processor (this is the cleanest method but you can grate them also). Mix in the ricotta, breadcrumbs and egg. Season with salt and pepper.

Working with a few at a time so they don’t dry out, cut the wonton skins into 3-inch rounds with a cookie cutter (a cutter with a scalloped edge will yield prettier ravioli.) Place a teaspoon full of the beet mixture on one half of a pasta circle. Brush beaten egg around the edges and fold the top half of the circle over the filling. Press around the edges to seal. Repeat with all the wonton rounds.

The ravioli can be frozen at this point, or cooked right away. (If you have extra filling, it can be tossed with cooked pasta, butter, poppy seeds and cheese as a very pink sauce.)

Melt butter in a small saucepan.

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. When water is boiling, gently add ravioli (you will want to cook these in several batches so they don’t crowd and stick together. Keep them moving as you add them to the water so they don’t stick to the bottom of the pot.) As ravioli cook, the beet color will show through the pasta. They will float when they are cooked, but taste to be sure you like the texture.

Drain ravioli and place in a bowl. Toss gently with melted butter and poppy seeds. Divide among serving dishes, and sprinkle with cheese.

Serves eight as a first course, four as a main dish.

Roasted Beet and Potato Salad

1 1/2 pounds small baby beets (bigger beets will do if that’s all you can find)
1 1/2 pound new potatoes (Yukon gold are good here)
1 large red onion
Olive oil for roasting
Salt and pepper

7 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar (more to taste)
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Roasted garlic, chopped herbs (tarragon, mint) or crumbled goat cheese are good additions to this salad

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Scrub beets and cut all but 1/2 inch of the greens off. Wrap them in small bunches in heavy foil and put on baking sheet. Roast until done, about 1 1/2 hours. (Beets can be roasted in advance and refrigerated.) When you can handle the beets, cut the greens off and rub the skin – it should come off easily. I do this right over the foil to contain the mess. Cut beets into bite sized wedges.

Meanwhile, cut potatoes into bite sized wedges and toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast on a baking sheet until crispy and golden, stirring once or twice.

Cut onion into bite sized wedges, toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast on a baking sheet until cooked and starting to caramelize, stirring once or twice.

Whisk together dressing ingredients. Combine beets, potatoes and onions. Toss with vinaigrette. Adjust for seasonings.

This salad is best made in advance, but the potatoes will dry out if refrigerated so hold at room temperature to give the flavors a chance to meld.

Christine would love to hear from you about food. Contact her by e-mail at Next week, Food Fare partner Jennifer Piurek takes a tender look at one of her new favorite foods – the tenderloin.

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