…Suitable Hot or Cold for Holiday Meals and Parties..
and Easy to Boot
(c) 2015, Davd
The beet, or beetroot in real-English, is a classic winter vegetable: It stores well in a cold [but not freezing], damp cellar. It is just about as good taken from storage in April, even May, as it was dug fresh in October or even September.
The big difference, that makes beets much more a winter than a fall vegetable, is that from early December or late November onward, the gardens have stopped producing. The sweet, slightly crunchy boiled beet slices that were outshone by broccoli, lettuce, kale, maybe fall peas in September and October, are just as good in the first four months of the New Year when those other vegetables—never mind cucumbers, tomatoes and zucchini—simply aren’t available fresh.
You can look, and there will be “fresh” vegetables in the stores. “Fresh”, in winter and the early spring “hungry gap”, means “never frozen, neither canned” After a long truck ride from the Southern United States or farther away, including probably a wait at the Border, and then the usual warehouse treatment, no vegetable is fresh.
Roots and cabbages take long waits from harvest to use, better than lettuce, cucumbers, sweet corn, etc. Broccoli, cauliflower, sometimes sweet peppers can survive the trucking in good enough shape to be worth buying—at a reasonable price. (I bought some broccoli myself, this week, at just under $1.50 per bunch, after preferring steamed cabbage with caraway for most of the autumn when broccoli cost $5-$9 per kilo.) This winter, import prices are high, and we can give thanks for the staple winter vegetables: Roots, cabbages, canned tomatoes—and bean sprouts, which you can sprout economically at home.
The usual way to cook beets is, of course, boiling. Steamed beets, i have never seen, nor baked, nor fried. They’re not bad if boiled in plain water; but a little spice and vinegar can give them a different taste, one which many people prefer and most people find a pleasant “change of pace”. Instead of one good winter vegetable, then, boiled beets can give the menu diversity of two vegetables.
Especially if you’re trying to use local produce as much as possible, that extra flavour is well worth a little extra work; and it is only a little. To make picklish beets, you simply add allspice, chopped onion, and white vinegar to the cooking water.
Of course, there are recipes for pickled beets that are much more complicated; and some of them make quite impressive pickles. If you want to “can up” a dozen or several dozen jars of pickled beets for the future, those recipes are worth trying, perhaps varying, and choosing among. What “picklish” beets offer as a technique, is quick, easy results that taste good—and taste pleasantly different from ordinary boiled beets.
For the Solstice holidays, (often mislabeled as “Christmas”) a picklish taste is generally more welcome than the plain taste of a good vegetable—hence, this technique goes up now, for the last week-plus of December* as well as for the occasional winter use until home grown vegetables are again possible in most of Canada.
Start with a beet or two—if you’re not confident how much to season it, take a small or medium sized one, and slice it about 3/8″ thick, (err toward thinner.) Put the beet slices into a cooking pot, and add water enough to cover them. Then take out the water long enough to measure its volume.
To the water, add about 10% as much vinegar: In the trial i cooked up while writing this blog, i put ¼ cup vinegar in 2½ cups of water—one tenth as much vinegar as water—and added about the same amount of chopped onion as vinegar, plus a rounded teaspoonful of allspice. That cooked two small beets. They came out so good that i recommend you start with these ratios—10 parts water, 1 part white vinegar, 1 part chopped onion, a slightly rounded teaspoonful of allspice per half litre of water—and then change to your tastes after the first batch, which i predict you’ll like well enough already.
I slice my beets about 1 cm thick—that’s three-eighths of an inch in English measure—so they will cook in a bit over half an hour’s time. Cut off the top where the leaves were, and the “tail” or taproot; and then you can slice the beet in half to make it lie flat on the cutting board, or slice it straight across if you prefer a round slice and have good control of your vegetable knife.
Use, in general, the smallest stainless steel cooking pot that will cover the smaller size element of your electric stove. If the water [plus vinegar] covers all the beet slices, you have enough liquid; and in general, that’s easier to accomplish in a smaller pot. (If you cook on a woodstove, you probably know how to choose a pot to suit the job; if in doubt, use one in which the beets and liquid total 3-5 cm [1¼” to 2″] deep.)
Bring the seasoned water to a boil on high heat, then lower the power to the level that just keeps the pot gently boiling. Expect beets, even sliced this thin, to take at least a half hour to cook—mine did, the two times i’ve made picklish beets this autumn. (The vinegar may turn the surface of the beet slices whitish while they are cooking; when my test batch had cooled from boiling to eating temperature, they were a good beet red color again.)
Don’t use a clock to decide when they are done—use a fork: The beets are cooked when a fork will easily penetrate through the slices. A sharp pointed “salad fork” is OK to use for testing them; and if in doubt as to whether the fork penetrates easily enough, let them cook a few more minutes at that gentle boil. They won’t turn from too-crisp to mushy in ten minutes.
My test batch of beet slices took more like 45 minutes than a half hour, to cook, so to be prudent, i suggest you allow at least an hour (but don’t expect to need that long.) They weren’t as strongly flavored as the pickled beets i’ve been served by households that can them up at harvest; but they were very good, and sweet despite no added sugar.
They’re good cold, too, and can go on the pickle tray at a holiday party—or any other party this winter that has a cold tray.
* This technique should ideally have been posted around December 20; but my attention was on something more important just then. I was working with a few other men toward founding a co-operative household. So far, nothing of our activity is worth writing up; i hope to post something in the first half of 2016.
The reason i write ”mislabeled as Christmas“ is that Orthodox Christians fast during the weeks running up to December 25, and i see no Christian basis for calling typical December partying a form of homage to Jesus Christ. A feast on the 25th, or later under the Julian calendar, yes. A feast for the poor on St. Stephen’s Day [Boxing Day in British usage], yes! Shopping mania, no!