Beet season is in full swing. This still baffles me, as I was always under the impression that beets were harvested in the autumn along with parsnips, turnips, and Brussels sprouts. Has the beet season changed, now prolonged due to global warming, or have I just been sleeping in the field all these years? Regardless, the wooden planks of every other stall at the farmer’s market are heavy with ruby red or golden beets. Some still have their shiny leaves, which are perfect chopped as part of a salad or sautéed with bacon lardons . Others are clipped, snipped, and sold by the quart.
I’m finding that folks have strong opinions about beets. Those from a can were the most often mentioned, and then there are the ones filling a stainless steel container sitting next to the cottage cheese in a salad bar. Neither versions are my favorite, nor have they ever been.
It was many years ago that I was served a beet that had been roasted over hot coals in an aluminum foil packet. Before being offered to the fire, they were simply drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and neatly wrapped in its shiny package. After coming off the grill, they were allowed to sit, still bundled up, where they continued to steam for about 15 minutes, before being unwrapped. I can still remember taking a whiff of the heady aromas of caramelized sugar and char. Using a dry paper towel, the outer skin was easily removed by rubbing it off. Some recipes recommend performing this step under running water, but I find that too much flavor is washed away.
More recently, I experienced beets in a new arena — pickled! I was dining with friends at Moscow on the Hill , a neighborhood restaurant in Saint Paul, MN. Along with their myriad vodkas, the Hill serves many types of pickled vegetables, including cauliflower, carrots, bell peppers, and celery, each with their own flavor. Of course, I honed in on the beets, as these babies were sweet and tangy with hints of cloves and mustard seed. We attempted to take apart each profile, grilling each other with questions, like “I’m tasting cloves — does this have cloves? What about coriander? I could swear I’m tasting coriander in this pickled cauliflower!”
Then last December, my brother Mark brought over a jar of pickled beets that was gifted to him by a co-worker. These beets were delicious! And, come to find out they are very simple to make, can, or “put up,” so to speak.
So, since beet season is happening now, and may or may not be around when we start raking leaves, it’s time to get out your canning jars and “put-up” some of these delicious but often maligned root vegetables.
About 30 small to medium beets, washed
4 cups granulated sugar
4 cups water
4 cups white distilled vinegar
2 teaspoon whole cloves
2 teaspoon whole allspice
1 two to three inch cinnamon sticks
½ teaspoon yellow mustard seed (per jar), optional
1 jalapeño pepper per jar, optional
Select small young beets, cutting off stems and roots and wash thoroughly. Reserve leaves for another use, if desired. Place beets in large pot and cover with cold water.
Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until beets can be pierced with a paring knife, about 15 minutes. Drain beets in a large colander. Place colander in a bowl and run them under cold water for about 3 – 5 minutes to loosen skin. Skin can then be easily removed by slipping it off with your fingers.
While beets are cooking, in a large sauce pan, bring sugar, water, vinegar, cloves, allspice, and cinnamon stick to a boil.
After beets are peeled, pack them into sterilized jars within ¾ inch of top. Stuff a jalapeño, if adding, into the jar.
Pour hot pickling liquid over beets to within ½ inch of top of jar. Add mustard seeds, if using, seal lid and process  for 30 minutes in boiling water bath.