A love affair with beets

A Note from Bobbie Lewis: Here’s another wonderful guest blog from Isaac DeLamatre, head of the kitchens at Antioch College. Personally, I don’t like beets, even though I’m a big veggie fan and I’ve been tempted by many beet dishes that look delicious. I think it’s genetic, because my dad, who also loved veggies, wouldn’t eat beets. Someone once said beets taste like dirt smells; that about describes it for me! But my husband loves them, and I know lots of my readers do too, so enjoy Isaac’s offering.

Velvety, blood red, roasted and peeled. Beets resemble recently removed hearts floating in post-op flotsam. It would be grim if they were not so delicious.

The voluptuous tuber of this particular beta vulgaris (known colloquially as the “beet root” or in days gone as the “blood turnip”) absorbs from the earth esoteric wisdom and is an apothecary of vitamins and medicinal applications. Carbohydrate sugars and amino acids abound; you will not tire of the copious amounts of beets coming in from markets and gardens throughout the fall and winter months.

When roasted, cooled, peeled and sliced, the beet root acquires the soft, velvety texture of sashimi. It slithers as it is chewed, releasing its flavors, and happiness, and satisfaction.

Beveled, slender, scarlet and fuchsia stalks burst upward towards the sky elevating and supporting deep green, red veined solar snares. Each leaf perfectly able to use raw sunlight as a catalyst to transform UV rays into plant energy and edible carbohydrates. Each tuber perfectly able to harvest minerals from the soil and make them available for human consumption. Each plant perfectly succulent.

In search of the inherent wisdom of beets and the truths that they seem to embody, I have come to realize that the beet is the personification of truth itself. I cannot yet define how or articulate why, but slice open a fresh beet and gaze at the infinite fractal display of beauty within. Then count yourself lucky, as the universe has just shown you its face.

Sweet and juicy, the peppery citrus-flavored leaves of the young beet are fantastic eaten raw. As the plant matures, gentle-heat cooking methods are suitable for preparing the green tops.

Steam the greens and season them with salt, pepper and a little vinegar or toss them with a little tamari and sesame oil for a basic dinner side. Sauté them and fold them into an omelet or scrambled eggs to get your fiber and energy; beets are high in B vitamins, making them great vegetables for which to break-fast and start your day.

Innumerable ways to cook them

The beets are of such outstanding virtue they have lent themselves to be prepared utilizing any culinary preparation currently employed by human beings. The humble beet has graced my palate as deep-fried roasted beets with schichimi togarashi at Austin’s famed East Side Kings food truck,as lacto-fermented beet kvass from Fab Ferments in Cincinnati, and as raw slaws shredded up at home.

One of my mother-in-law’s favorite preparations is beets cubed, tossed in salt, pepper and oil, and roasted with other root vegetables of the season like sweet potatoes and turnips. Everyone I know has a grandmother with a recipe for borscht, each one different from the other, like so many snowflakes.

If you decide to take a stab at growing beets yourself, beware. The deer and bunnies love the tops of beets and will appreciate the imprudently guarded garden. They will thank you by mowing them to the ground.

When selecting beets, choose those that are very firm, with stout, crisp, intact greens and stems. They should shimmer and glow when halved, revealing the complex patterns and rich colors inside. Old or low-quality beets will appear dry, ashy and limp. Do not bring these beets home with you. Reject the beets that are soft and doughy or misshapen.

Below is a recipe that will deliver satisfaction to the most novice or senior beet aficionado. You will have no problem creating a worthy dish with even the most elementary of techniques and preparations.



A celebration of spring asparagus

In the mid-1960s, I enrolled at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, a hotbed of liberal education (or as Antiochians themselves like to say, bootcamp for the revolution). Antioch College fell on hard times in the later years of the century. It had become part of a university whose administration no longer saw the value of a small, innovative liberal (in every sense of the word) arts college. They decided to close the residential college and invest the university’s resources entirely in programs for commuters and in distance learning. Alumni rallied and raised enough to take over the college name and property from the university but before the deal was final the college closed, in June 2008. Antioch reopened in 2011 as an independent, residential college. The revived Antioch will see its first graduates next year.

One of Antioch’s goals is to teach the skills needed for sustainable living, and the college practices what it preaches. Antioch has a working farm that produces much of the food for the college kitchen. Every month the alumni newsletter includes a piece called “From Antioch Kitchens.” This is the latest, written by kitchen director Isaac DeLamatre.

As a reward for surviving a long and brutal winter, spring’s bounty brings us a magnificent vegetable. Asparagus officinalis, whom we know colloquially as asparagus, begins punching through the thawing soil when temperatures finally begin to hover around 50 degrees.

While the rest of the garden is still shaking off winter residue, the asparagus harvest rolls in. As a harbinger of spring it is one of the very first locally available vegetables and is one of my favorites.  I enjoy the grassy, juicy flavor and appreciate its gastronomic versatility. It holds a symbolic significance to the changing of seasons (and the promising relief of more hospitable temperatures).

I think what I admire most about asparagus are the values that it represents. Asparagus embodies the practice of patience, one of the most admirable and sought-after virtues. The plant produces edible shoots for a short period of time only once a year; the wait in and of itself is a lesson in patience. But not only is there a yearly intermission between crops, the plant does not produce viable shoots for three to five years after planting.

A long-term investment

The planting of asparagus is a long-term investment of time, one that has been known to pay off for upwards of 100 years. So far is it removed from the modern ideas of instantaneous gratification and planned obsolescence! Asparagus appreciates attention and pampering; it likes its growing beds to be free of all other weeds and plants, and enjoys a generous top dressing of compost and leaf mulch every year. I feel that the plant’s cultural attitude is to be held in high regard and that asparagus has a lot to teach us if we are willing to listen and learn.

One of our most recent preparations of asparagus in the Kitchen involved lemon vinaigrette. It is a refreshing and simple composition that can be served warm or cool as a side or starter to any spring time meal.

Select evenly sized shoots. When I cook them I like them to all be the same size but the size that I choose for each batch falls within a range. I only accept pencil-sized to magic marker-sized asparagus. Any stalks smaller than a pencil shouldn’t have been cut in the first place and are a waste of everyone’s time. Parts of the plant that small need to be left alone so that the young plant it came from will stay healthy.

Anything larger is too woody and fibrous with therefore less usable stalk. The really big ones are good for using the asparagus tips in stir fries or soups. I like the stalks to be no more than six inches tall—when they get taller, the crowns start to branch out and they are not as tender.

Taller or longer stalks also mean I am buying a bunch of unusable product that I will trim off so that the stalks fall within six inches long. It is a general courtesy the grower should have extended so that I would not pay for more than I could use.

Some people like to peel asparagus. I generally do not.

After the vegetable is trimmed and washed it can be cooked in a variety of ways. For this pairing I like to steam or blanch it.

Tips for a successful vinaigrette

By slowly adding the oil to the vinegar, we are creating an emulsion. Two liquids that would ordinarily separate are going to allow for the fat (oil) to become suspended in the vinegar. Our emulsifying agent, in this case mustard, will prevent the oil and vinegar from separating or “breaking.”

When successful, we should end up with a viscous opaque liquid that holds its form as a sauce. An unsuccessful attempt will break. It will resemble an immiscible oil/vinegar project from science class.