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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sweet Beets Don't Deserve Their Common Bum Rap

Beets are much maligned and misused almost everywhere except Russia. Frequently they are eaten only from the can and consigned to the salad bar or used as a topping for hamburgers.


But beets are packed with sweet flavor, their brilliant color is a gift when planning a meal and they were available this week at my local market. I bought some baby beets, which were sold in bunches of three for 2,000 rubles (about 35 cents).


The beet is a native of the temperate areas of Eurasia and is now widely cultivated. The succulent roots are used as food, fodder and a source of sugar.


The most important species -- the common beet -- has several recognized varieties. The variety called Swiss chard has small roots and highly developed leaves that are cooked for greens and thick leaf stalks that also are edible. The most-interesting-name award goes to the variety called mangel-wurzel, which has large, coarse roots and is grown as cattle fodder. The extensively cultivated table beet is commonly called beetroot in England. The sugar beet has large, white, conical roots containing a high percentage of sugar.


The scientific classification is further evidence of the beet's lowly place in the culinary lexicon. The common beet is classified as Beta vulgaris, while the table beet is Beta vulgaris variety crassa -- not just vulgar but crass, too.


Small beets are my favorites. Just trim the root and leaves and remove the skin after cooking -- they look great. Larger beets can be julienned -- cut into matchstick-size pieces -- or pureed.


One of my favorite dishes is fillet of lamb with beet confits. The beet confit is a simple dish of julienned beets, lamb stock, orange juice, thyme and freshly ground black pepper. The lamb and confits are served with two or three baby beets. Beets, a blood orange, walnuts and arugula topped with a shallot, vinegar and olive-oil vinaigrette make a delicious salad.


Beets can be boiled, steamed or baked. Try wrapping them in foil and baking them in the oven. After they've cooled down you can simply rub the skin off and you don't lose any flavor.


Save the leafy green tops, which can be steamed, sauteed or boiled just as you would spinach. Beet greens are delicious sauteed with garlic or chopped and added to soup. Try steamed beet tops as part of a greens mix to serve with a few slices of cured ham, such as Italian prosciutto. The greens are also highly nutritious. Beet greens can be added to a warm salad of wilted greens tossed with a garlic vinaigrette. Young, tender greens can be eaten raw in salads.


Svyokla, or beets, are used in many Russian recipes. Svekolniki, or spring beet soup, combines cooked beet leaves, vinegar, cucumbers, sour cream, a chopped egg, sugar and kvas, a slightly alcoholic beverage made from rye bread. Botvinya is a beet, sorrel, spinach and fish soup.


Of course, beets are the central ingredient in borshch, a classic rustic soup that has as many variations as Moscow has churches. The simplest is just beets, carrot, vinegar, sugar and beet tops, topped with cucumber, sour cream, dill, parsley or spring onions.