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Dirt don’t hurt

in Featured/Supply and Demand by

They smelled awfully dirty when I lifted them out of the bag. This far into winter, the scent came as a bit of a surprise to the olfactory region of my brain. Is that…the ground? Soil? Aging earth? Yes, and also…beets!

Two bags of small, round, magenta-on-the-inside beets have been sitting in a dark cupboard in the kitchen of this apartment since the final day of the St. John’s Farmers’ Market in 2011, waiting for special occasions and right moments to meet the light of dinner.

I must admit, at first glance in February, the remaining portions in the final bag looked dull. Cloaked in a dusted colour somewhere between soft brown and decaying grey, if I did not know their taste I might have passed them by. Gross old beets, some (but not this one) might say. They’re a root vegetable. What could be so exciting? Folate, vitamin C, and potassium, hello! Nah, for me, it’s the way they melt in my mouth after their earthly clothes are traded in for olive oil, sea salt, and savoury. When they are dressed and receive an hour’s roast in the oven, they transform into bright, delectable fall and winter treats.

Beets (pickled beets, to be exact) were holiday meal items while I was growing up, which may explain the whimsical tone. Since moving to Newfoundland, they have become a more regular component of my meals. The vegetable grows well here, and can be planted in May or June. Beets will grow in containers with a depth of 15cm, or in the ground. According to Ian Senciall’s Avalon Vegetable Gardener, “Beets grow best in very well drained fertile soil that is free of rocks and has not been recently manured. A high level of potassium, as in a tomato fertilizer or wood ashes, is also beneficial when given as a side dressing.” Beets are often sold for planting in “seed balls”, which contain 2-3 seeds. These should be soaked in water overnight, then planted the following day. Although I have referred to them rather generally here, there are actually a few varieties of beets on the market. For instance, the dangerous sounding “Bull’s Blood” will produce red leaves that are great in salads. “Pablo” beets are smaller, and their round shape makes them good for canning. “Cylindra” beets are longer in shape, which makes them perfect for slicing. If you are looking to store beets over winter, “Detroit Dark Red” would be a good choice to grow or purchase from area farmers.

Raw or cooked, beets are gaining a reputation as a colourful, versatile, and delicious root vegetable.

So, give them a scrub and remove the tops, should you purchase them fresh, with greens attached. Beet greens can be steamed or used in salads, so don’t be too quick to cast them off completely. If you haven’t written beets off just yet, try out the following recipe. You might find yourself saving them in a dark, cold place for your meals next winter when they’re back at farmers’ markets, farm stands, local sections of produce aisles, and maybe even your garden in fall 2012.

This recipe (which I have slightly adjusted) is taken from Canadian Living Magazine. It calls for them to be cooked in tin foil, but I have also found that roasting them in a covered pan works just as well. In the spirit of local flavours, I have also suggested using savoury, but the original recipe calls for rosemary. This quick and simple dish has become a personal favourite. Here’s hoping it livens up your dinner plate at some point as well.

Ingredients

6 beets, (about 1-1/2 lb/750 g)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp/15 mL dried savoury
2 tbsp (30 mL) extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp (2 mL) each salt and pepper
1 tbsp (15 mL) parsley

Preparation

Cut beet tops to leave 1 inch (2.5 cm) attached; leave tails. Place on 16-inch (40 cm) piece of foil. Sprinkle with garlic, savoury, 1 tbsp (15 mL) of the oil, salt and pepper. Fold to form packet. Place on rimmed baking sheet; roast in 400°F (200°C) oven until fork-tender, 1 hour.

Wearing rubber gloves, peel and trim beets; cut into 1/4-inch (5 mm) thick slices. Arrange on warmed platter; drizzle with remaining oil. Sprinkle with parsley.

Source : Canadian Living Magazine: November 2004

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