Correct me if I’m wrong, but if the time has changed and we have fallen backwards, if evening dusk comes an hour or two sooner, if the skies seem clearer, the air drier and the moon brighter, we must be smack in the middle of beet season. Which is all right by me.
I love those little gnarly, rooty, pithy things that last forever in the back of your vegetable drawer (and sometimes on your hands and in your white t-shirts and in your floral dish towels) because like potatoes and turnips and parsnips and carrots and even rutabagas, all cousins and half-cousins and kissing cousins to beets, most of the time you forget they are even around.
They are that forgiving, that solid, that universal. They are that quiet, that undemanding. Even the names from whence they spring - tubers, tap roots, rhizomes, corms - inspire confidence.
There’s no mush with underground vegetables. No easy spoilage or rotten centers or delicate shelf life, either. They are all reminders - in case you needed to be reminded - that summer is history (put a fork in it; it is over and done) and we need to start thinking about dressing in layers when we go outside.
Root vegetables are pure October and until a sudden overnight gush of cold air and possible frost, pure November. And like autumn, like the turning leaves of oaks, maples, honey locusts and elms, like the colors of Halloween and Thanksgiving, root vegetables are all orange and yellow and golden and red. No pastels allowed.
I have yet to go into a restaurant and not order borscht if I see it on the menu. Not any two dishes are the same. But as someone in The Joy of Cooking said, there are as many kinds of borscht as there are Russians.
I thought that but didn’t say it to a Russian woman who was giving me a pedicure. But I did get her to say in her wonderful Eastern European accent, “I luf beets.”
Because I’m impatient and I don’t like to plan meals or menus, I used to consider it a chore to cook with root vegetables, thinking because they were so firm and compact they needed to take a long time to cook, thinking they needed to be roasted or boiled or baked.
But since I don’t make huge quantities of food at one time, something about heating up the oven disturbs me and requires too much advance planning - unless my kitchen is freezing and I welcome the heat.
I’d rather get my trusty cast-iron skillet hot (though now that I’m cooking on a gas stove these days the skillet heats up so quickly I have to reverse the order of things), slice the beets (or the narrow, faintly purple finger-shaped potatoes someone termed fingerling potatoes, carrots, parsnips, onions) thin, add a little canola oil to the pan, toss in the quarter-thin roots, listen for the sizzle, locate a wooden spoon to toss them around, maybe squeeze in a lemon or two or what was left in last night’s wine glass or some Bragg Liquid Aminos (which I use instead of salt) and stir, frequently.
When all that is melding and fusing I crush some garlic I just pulled from my 38th Street garden, garlic I planted last year right about this time, and toss into the mix.
Sometimes I pitch in a pinch of water. Then I turn down the heat, add at the last minute the beet greens and the chopped beet stems and cover the ensemble for a few minutes. But depending on how thin I slice the vegetables and how vigilant I am at stirring, there are occasions I don’t even need the water. That way the vegetables are crunchy, which is good too. It’s amazing how fast the thinly sliced potatoes cook, especially the lovely Yukon gold.
Afterwards, I might add a little arugula, which is also a great and easy fall vegetable green to grow (but be prepared; it keeps on producing), some goat cheese, maybe some walnuts or raisins, and voila, an autumn delicacy. The colors alone are magnifique!
I’ve also shredded the vegetables, which really turns your hands a nice shade of pinkish crimson red - and gets you in shape for shredding potatoes for Chanukah latkes. This works especially well with beets, though when my cousin Maggie shreds beets she says she eats them raw. That way she doesn’t have to worry about any of the vitamins or flavor leaching out in the water.
But I don’t bother worrying about leaching. It’s enough I’m eating beets, right? And I don’t worry about the sugar content about which many popular diets that count calories love to bring up, especially when it comes to carrots. Beets they hardly bother to mention - who eats beets except from a can or on a buffet table? - even though beets carry a higher sugar content than carrots.
“Too much sugar,” they say. Well, it’s Halloween. It’s winter. It’s dark. I’m going to get my sugar one way or another, I can tell you that. Better it should come from root vegetables than O’Henry candy bars. ç