I recently joined a CSA and got my first installment of fresh, organic goodies this past Thursday. Among the bounty was a beautiful portion of baby beets. Beets have been a source of food forever and ever, and were even historically documented as being present in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. This is a huge text file so if you do click this link, use your browser’s “find” feature and type in the word “beet”, it’s much easier than reading through hundreds of pages of info.
More fun facts about the noble beet:
- Ancient Romans considered beet juice to be an aphrodisiac.
- They have been prepared in borscht, by astronauts for astronauts, in zero gravity.
- Australians add slices of pickled beets to their hamburgers (which sounds fantastic).
- They’re a major plot device in Tom Robbins’s book Jitterbug Perfume.
Tackle the roots first, and by roots I mean, the round, knobby thing most of us consider to be the entirety of the item “beet”, without regard for stems and leaves. Cut off the taproot (the long thing coming off the bottom of the beet) while you peel your beets. Here are a few things to remember:
Beets leak their juice and can leave a significant stain. If you don’t want your hands to get covered in beet juice, wear rubber gloves. If you don’t mind, don’t worry, it won’t hurt you. When the beets are older–and especially if I roast them before peeling–I always wear gloves, and I usually cut them on a plastic board I won’t mind throwing away if it gets too gnarly. Beet juice was used as a hair dye for a reason. But in this instance? Meh. It wasn’t too bad. Also, I was worried that a vegetable peeler would take too much of the beet with it, and I thought about just leaving the skins on (which I’m sure would be fine) but here’s a tip: baby beet skins are so tender, you can peel them with a spoon, like you do with ginger.
Slice your trimmed beets into rounds (or half-moons, if needed). The objective is to have roughly, sort of, uniform pieces of beet so they cook evenly. Make them so.
I admittedly am a cook by “feel”, so here, my directions can get a little dicey, but I’ll be happy to estimate sizes if you want them. I used half a medium-sized Vidalia onion, three garlic cloves (because I can’t help myself) and a really good handful of baby carrots. No, I didn’t use baby carrots because these are baby beets and I thought it would be cute to eat “baby” food. Baby carrots, FYI, are not young carrots at all but rather, mature carrots that are too unattractive to sell to the buying public and so are whittled down to create the illusion of young carrothood. And I used them because I had about a quarter of a bag that was in my fridge for a really long time. I snacked on some as I chopped. There’s probably about a cup’s worth of carrots here, use whatever you have handy.
Next? Into a nice, big pan. One with lots of room. You’ll see. Give them a few minutes to get their saute on in some olive oil and then toss in some herbs. Salt and pepper, of course (but watch the salt! You’ve still got cheese to add), and some fennel seed, rosemary (probably about a teaspoon each, but don’t get too crazy because these herbs are pungent and can easily take over a dish), maybe a half a teaspoon of red pepper flakes, a dash of nutmeg (if I used a quarter teaspoon I’ll fall over in shock) and bay leaf.
While this sautes, chop the beet stems. Don’t chop them larger than an inch; just cut them into nice, bite-sized portions.
While you’re chopping, take care of the leaves, too. They will wilt to a fraction of their uncooked size, like spinach, so you don’t have to sweat how small they’re chopped. Just stack the leaves and cut across their width.
Yes, astute readers, those are indeed a small handful of chopped snow peas on the left-hand side of the cutting board. Because why not? They were a fun addition, but not integral to the overall flavor of the dish. Don’t knock yourself out getting some, but by all means chop ’em if you’ve got ’em.
Once the stems have cooked for about five minutes, add your greens and a touch more salt and pepper.
What sort of pasta are you using? When you put the leaves in to cook, the pasta should be about five minutes away from doneness. If you’re using packaged pasta, it should already be cooking. If you’re using fresh, the water should be boiling and you should put your pasta in pretty much any minute now. I had fresh whole-wheat fettuccine, which took maybe three or four minutes to cook. The best way to test your pasta is to just taste a strand. Having a mouth is like having your very own built-in timer.
I gave him the pasta maker for Christmas, but I get to reap the benefits. Win! And I digress.
Pasta is boiling? Check! Give the beets a minute to cook and then put in a little bit of water or stock–enough to give the veggies something to hang out in, not enough to make it even a little bit soupy. A quarter-cup is probably sufficient, don’t use more than a half. (Me? I “measure” by passing a box of stock around the edge of the pan. Twice.) Give that a good stir, make sure anything that’s started to brown to the bottom of the pan has scraped up, and let it simmer together for the aforementioned five minutes.
Before you drain the pasta (which is now, of course, perfectly cooked al dente), save about a half-cup of the pasta water and toss it in with the beets as necessary. You might not need the whole thing, and that’s fine. You just want your veggie saute to come together as a sauce, and the starchy water facilitates that. Also, throw a tablespoon of butter in with the beets; it really “finishes” your sauce and gives it an added boost of homey, sweet warmth. I added the butter as an almost-afterthought (“Hey, this might be a good idea…”), and was so glad I did.
Now that you’ve starchy-watered your pan, and the butter has melted, add your drained pasta to the pan and pull all the goodies through so the pasta is evenly coated with sauce. Put it in your serving bowl.
I adore how the beets dominated the color profile of the sauce and dyed the pasta pink. Looks good, yeah? But we’re not done yet. Remember when I told you to freeze your feta? Crumbly cheeses such as feta (or bleu, though I don’t care for bleu cheese and I know you’re all horrified and I swear I have tried to enjoy it but when I eat bleu cheese it only results in tears) don’t shred well…because they crumble, see?…but if they’re frozen, they can be grated on a traditional grater and it looks like you have a beautiful soft topping of snow.
If you don’t have a hunk of frozen feta at your disposal, now is when you top this with one of the other cheeses I mentioned earlier. It’s all good.
This was fresh, delicious, about as local as I can make something without becoming a subsistence farmer (which, God no, see my previous statements about my black thumb, I would starve and thank you CSA people!), pretty, and jammed with veggies so generally, quite nutritionally sound. Serve it with a side salad just so you can kick your recommended daily vegetable intake in the butt as you blow past it. George said, “I just…feeeeeel like I’m eating something good for me, you know?” Local, groovy, tasty, AND good for you? Win, win, and extra double-win. Enjoy.