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Can't beet cold-weather crops

While a mild winter means more produce at local farmers markets — which open this week in Ashland and Medford — the vegetables themselves are anything but middling.

Sweeter vegetables are spurred by cold, even in moderate doses, which converts naturally occurring starches into sugars. That sweetness accompanies the season’s brightest hue in overwintered beets.

“I think they’re just pretty intense in their color and flavor,” says Applegate farmer Josh Cohen, whose Barking Moon Farm grew more beets over the past few months than ever before.

Magenta pigment in the commonly cultivated Red Ace beet stains almost anything it touches: clothing, hands and cutting boards. But that’s a boon in some dishes, including borscht, desserts such as sorbet, even pickles and preserves. The pasta recipe here is a prime example.

“It’s one of those vegetables that a lot of people know about,” says Talent farmer Suzy Fry. “I think they’re a lot more popular.”

Salads, particularly with cheese and nuts, have brought beets into the mainstream over the past few years, say Cohen and Fry. Various iterations call for roasting, blanching or simply slicing beets raw. But there’s hardly a fine-dining or farm-to-table restaurant that hasn’t featured the salad in some form.

“It’s like everywhere I go, I have to try their beet salad,” says Fry. “And it’s done in a lot of different ways.”

“It’s so good,” says Cohen, who likes to combine beets with spinach, goat cheese and walnuts.

Or for a simpler side dish, Cohen boils beets, slices them into thin half-moons and tosses them with balsamic vinaigrette.

When boiling beets, add 1/4 cup white vinegar per 8 cups water to keep their color bright. Then peel beets after cooking, removing skins with a damp cloth. Lemon juice can remove beet stains from the skin.

Cohen, Fry and other local farmers sell loose, overwintered, organic beets for $1.50 to $2 per pound. In summer and fall, they’ll bundle beets and sell them with tops attached. The coarser greens are delicious stir-fried, while the tender leaves can augment a salad.

“The greens on them are so, so healthy,” says Fry.

“It’s like, ‘Oh, I have two vegetables in one,’ ” she adds. “I get a green and a root vegetable, too.”

Both greens and root vegetables will be in good supply for the farmers markets’ opening weeks. Shoppers can expect to find carrots, parsnips, potatoes, onions, garlic, shallots, kale, chard, collards, spinach, cabbage, parsley, leeks and a few final winter squash. Plant starts also are available from growers.

Value-added products, such as dry beans and peppers, popcorn, sunflower seeds and fresh-squeezed juices, also are offered by farms such as Barking Moon, Fry Family Farm and Wandering Roots in Gold Hill.

“They like to take the slower winter months to get creative on their farms,” says Abby Hogge, who manages the market’s Saturday session, set to start May 2 in downtown Medford and Ashland.

New to the market this year are natural sodas, Vietnamese street food, tea prepared with fresh nut milks and hand-forged knives and kitchen tools, says Hogge.

If you buy a basket full of beets at the market this week, try one of these recipes:

30-Minute Risotto-Style Beetroot Pasta

4 cups chicken (or vegetable) broth

3 tablespoons butter, divided

1/2 medium onion, peeled and chopped

2 medium beets, scrubbed, trimmed and diced small

1/2 pound short spiral pasta, uncooked

2 sprigs fresh parsley, chopped

1 teaspoon garlic powder

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper, to taste

In a medium saucepan, bring the broth to a boil, then turn heat to low to keep broth hot.

In a large, nonstick skillet, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium-high heat. Add the chopped onion and cook until it starts to brown.

Add the diced beet and pasta to skillet and cook, stirring, until pasta starts to look toasty (about 5 minutes).

Add 1 cup of hot broth to pasta mixture and stir continuously. Wait until almost all broth is absorbed before adding more broth, 1 cup at a time. Cook until pasta is tender but still firm (about 10 to 15 minutes). There might be some leftover broth.

Remove skillet from heat and stir in remaining 1 tablespoon butter, the chopped parsley, garlic powder and Parmesan cheese. Season to taste with the salt and pepper.

Makes 4 servings.

Fudgy Dark Chocolate-Beet Brownies

1/2 pound fresh beets, scrubbed and trimmed

2 sticks unsalted butter, plus more for greasing parchment paper

8 ounces dark chocolate, chopped or chips

3 eggs, at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup packed golden-brown sugar

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

Place the beets in a saucepan and add water to cover by 1/2 inch. Set over medium heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 25 to 35 minutes, until tender. Drain and transfer to an ice bath until cool. Transfer cooled beets to a food processor and pulse until minced.

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Line a 9-by-9-inch brownie pan with parchment paper, lightly coat with some butter.

In a medium, microwave-safe bowl, melt the butter and chocolate together. Stir until smooth and set aside to cool.

In a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer, beat the eggs for about 30 seconds. Add the vanilla and brown sugar, mixing on medium-high until mixture is light and airy, for about 2 minutes. Reduce speed and add minced beets, then slowly add melted chocolate and mix until just combined. Slowly add the flour, baking powder and salt; mix until combined.

Pour batter into prepared pan and smooth top with a spatula.

Bake in preheated oven for 30 to 35 minutes, until a knife inserted into center comes out clean. Remove from oven and allow brownies to cool before cutting and serving.

Makes 16 to 25 brownies (depending on size).

Shaved Golden Beet, Carrot and Radish Salad

1 1/2 tablespoons apple-cider vinegar

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon raw honey

1/2 teaspoon sea salt, plus more to taste

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

Freshly ground pepper, to taste

4 small golden beets, scrubbed, trimmed and peeled

4 medium carrots, peeled and cut in half

1 small bunch of radishes, scrubbed and trimmed

2 tablespoons chopped, fresh, flat-leaf parsley

In a large salad bowl, whisk together the vinegar, olive oil, mustard, honey, salt and spices.

Thinly slice the beets, carrot and radishes on a mandoline or in a food processor with slicing disc.

Toss sliced vegetables in bowl with dressing to coat evenly. Sprinkle with the chopped parsley and season to taste with more salt and pepper.

Makes 4 servings.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com. 

A sneaky way to get folks to eat beets ... add them to chocolate. Photo by Kim Kim Foster-Tobin/The State
30-Minute Risotto-style Beetroot Pasta gets its deep red color from the beets, which should be in good supply as area growers' markets open this week. Photo by Kim Kim Foster-Tobin/The State