While picking up a bunch of beets at Bluegrass Farmers Market, a customer said to grower Kirby Overman: "Those are nice-looking radishes, but they're awfully big."
Educating customers about common vegetables is as much a part of Overman's job as dropping seeds into the soil. When it comes to beets, he usually has to tell customers how to cook it rather than explain what it is. But he's willing to do both.
"I'm telling people about roasting beets instead of the standard boiling. It's very easy and very simple to roast. You got everything there. You don't take the skin off; just cut off the tops and cut off the root, wrap it in foil.
"Put each individually wrapped beet on a cookie sheet and put in the oven for about 45 minutes, depending on the size, at about 350 to 375," Overman said. "Take it out and you might want to put salt and pepper or butter on it, but you don't need to. They're tasty the way they are."
Overman grows vegetables commercially in Garrard County and sells produce on Saturdays at the Bluegrass Farmers Market on Richmond Road.
"For the last two or three Saturdays at the market, I've been the only one with beets. I sell out of beets every day. They go fast," he said.
Beets are one of the sweetest vegetables around, with even more sugar than carrots or sweet corn. You can find gold, white and striped varieties, but the most common is the red-purple beet. Baby beets are simply harvested when young.
According to In Season, a cookbook from the editors of Fine Cooking, beets are ideal for salads, side dishes and soups. The entire plant is edible. You can use the small, tender leaves raw in salads, and sauté or braise the larger leaves as you would Swiss chard or kale.
You need to boil, bake or steam beets without peeling them first to retain their nutrients and keep the color from running, or "bleeding." Trim the root before cooking, but make sure you don't cut it too close to the beet itself or it will bleed. Once cooked, the skin will easily rub off, either under cold running water or simply by peeling with your hands after it has cooled slightly.
Always wear rubber gloves when cooking beets so you don't stain your skin. Or, according to Cook's Illustrated, you can rub the hand that will be holding the beets with about 1/2 teaspoon vegetable oil, taking care to keep the knife-holding hand dry. Cut beets, then wash hands with hot, soapy water.
To keep beets from staining your cutting board, give the cutting board surface a light coat of non-stick cooking spray before chopping. This thin coating added no discernible slickness under the knife and allowed the board to be quickly wiped clean with a paper towel.
Here are buying and storing tips from Delish Cooking School by Elizabeth Shepard:
■ Look for beets with crisp, fresh-looking greens. Bulbs should be firm with fairly smooth skin. Small and medium bulbs are generally more tender. Remove all but 1 inch of stem. Refrigerate in plastic in crisper drawer as long as 3 weeks. Store greens in plastic in crisper no more than 2 days. Wash just before cooking. Tiny baby beets can be the exception. Because they can be steamed whole with stems attached, store them untrimmed and refrigerate; use within 1 day.
■ Beets can be eaten raw, peeled and finely grated in salads; roasted; steamed; baked; or boiled. To bake, wash beets with 1-inch stems attached, and wrap (still wet, three to a packet) in heavy-duty aluminum foil. Bake in 400-degree oven until fork-tender, 30 to 60 minutes, depending on size. When cool enough to handle, slip off peel. Cooked beets can be served hot or cold.
■ The green leaves and stems that top the bulb are best when matured to about 4 to 6 inches in length. Before using, rinse them twice in tubs of cold water, then blanch until tender; drain, squeeze out excess water, and briefly cook in olive oil with some minced garlic.
You can jazz up your summer meals with these beet side dishes.
Simple grilled beets
8 medium-size beets (1 1/2 to 1 3/4 pounds)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil or canola oil, or more as needed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Prepare a medium fire in the grill. A lightly oiled vegetable grill rack is optional but recommended. Scrub the beets well. Cut the tops and roots off the beets. Slice the beets about 1/4 inch thick. Place in a bowl and toss with the oil until all the surfaces are well coated.
Grill the beets, turning or tossing a few times and brushing with more oil if desired, for 15 to 20 minutes. The beets are done when the slices are lightly charred and flexible. Taste one to be sure. Remove from the grill and place in a serving bowl. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and serve hot.
Makes 4 servings.
Source: The New Vegetarian Grill by Andrea Chesman
Here are some quick ideas for using beets from Melissa's Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce by Cathy Thomas. This tangy, slightly spicy sauce pairs well with roast game, chicken or pork. Spoon small portions next to the meat on rimmed plates.
1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped baked and peeled red or gold beets
1/2 cup reserved beet juice (see note)
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon freshly grated horseradish
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1⁄8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
In a blender, add all ingredients. Process until smooth and pourable. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Best served at room temperature.
Note: If there isn't enough juice from the cooked beets, add water or vegetable broth to measure ½ cup.
Makes about 4 servings (2 cups).
Pickled beet salad
1 small red onion
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 large beets, cooked and peeled
Crumbled goat cheese with herbs
Cut onion in half from top to bottom; thinly slice. In glass or ceramic bowl, combine sliced onion with red wine vinegar. Toss and set aside for 2 to 3 hours. Dice cooked and peeled beets. Add to onion mixture and toss. Serve over mixed greens and top with crumbled goat cheese with herbs.
1 large golden beet, baked, peeled, sliced
1 can (15 ounces) garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons unsweetened plain non-fat yogurt
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon tahini
1 teaspoon ground cumin
In food processor, combine golden beet and garbanzo beans; process until smooth, and then add yogurt, lemon juice, tahini and cumin. Process until smooth, and serve with toasted pita triangles.
Sharon Thompson: (859) 231-3321. Twitter: @FlavorsofKY. Blog: Flavorsofkentucky.bloginky.com.