When I was a kid, I had zero interest in beets. They either came sliced in glass jars or comprised the base for the pinkish borscht that my mother loved to eat. Right after college, I began hanging out in Detroit’s Greektown, where beets were a dark purple component in Greek salads. I gingerly tried them, and found if I covered them with enough dressing and feta, I could get them down.
But as it turned out, there was much more to beets than those early experiences. Roasted beets began to show up on menus in farm-to-table restaurants, and in gourmet delis. These weren’t gelatinous, like the jarred kind, but dense and flavorful, with a hint of sweetness, not a slap in the face with it.
As I honed my vegetable roasting skills, it struck me that I should add beets to the repertoire. I asked my mother if she’d knew anything about how to make them. She laughed. “Of course you can learn how to roast beets,” she said, and gave me detailed instructions. It made me wonder why we weren’t eating these when I was a kid.
I learned that beet preparation is not as easy as cutting up carrots or breaking off florets of cauliflower. You need to roast them before you can peel them, and you need to peel them while they’re still warm—a messy task. You might end up with purple hands and fingernails. But roasted beets taste so good that the effort is worth it.
Here is one of my favorite recipes for beets. It’s a good way to get acquainted with the technique, and it’s almost impossible to ruin this—unless you forget they’re in the oven.
Beet, Feta, and Walnut Salad
- 3 beets, unpeeled
- 1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
- 1/4 cup chopped and toasted walnuts
- 2 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1 Tbsp. lemon juice
- 1/4 tsp. salt, to taste
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a small baking dish with foil or parchment. Cut the tops and the roots from the beets so that they sit flat in the dish. Roast for 50-60 minutes. They’re done when a cake tester or toothpick goes in easily.
Let the beets cool for about 10 minutes. In the meantime, whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, and salt, and set aside. While the beets are still warm, place them in several paper towels or wrap them in a kitchen towel.
Starting from the top of each beet, cover your thumb or fingernail with the towel, and use it to strip off the beet skin (this will keep things less messy than stripping it with your bare hands). Try to peel from top to bottom, and rotate the beet as you rub away each chunk of skin.
Remove as much skin as you can with the paper towel, then use your uncovered fingernail (or a knife) to get the last little bits. Repeat with each beet. Wash your hands as soon as you can to remove any stains.
Cut the peeled beets into 1/2" slices, and then quarter each slice. Place the beets in a bowl and toss them with the olive oil/lemon/salt mixture. Top the dressed beets with feta, then toss again.
To toast the walnuts, place walnut halves in a nonstick pan and warm them over medium heat for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Then chop them roughly and sprinkle on top of the salad. Alternatively, you can top the beets with these sweet and spicy nuts.
A few tips for working with beets
Large beets are easier to peel and slice than smaller ones, but they can take longer to cook all the way through. If you want cooking speed, go with small; if you want convenience, go with bigger ones.
Definitely roast colors of beets and mix them together. Golden beets cook a little more quickly than traditional purple ones and taste a little milder. There are also pink and white beets, although I’ve never cooked the white variety.
You can wrap beets in foil to roast them, but I find that this steams the beets rather than roasts them. Try it both ways, and see which you prefer. However, foil is useful tenderizing tough beets. If you find that your beets are harder than you’d like after an hour of roasting, wrap them in foil and put them back in the oven for 5-10 minutes.
Beets will bleed in the oven, so don’t be alarmed if you see a little volcano-like eruption from the tops.
Vegans can skip the feta cheese. But for cheese eaters, you can also try this with crumbled goat cheese or some dollops of ricotta cheese around the bowl.
Beets keep for a couple of days in the fridge once cooked, so have a second or third day use for them in mind when you’re roasting them. Or, just make a big bowl of this salad and eat at it for a few lunches in a row.