In the sixth month of my pregnancy and approximately the fifth month of not being able to keep my eyes open for more than an hour at a time, I dragged myself to the doctor's office to get tested for anemia. Sure enough, our blessed daughter appears to be hogging all of my red blood cells, no doubt practicing for the day when she will take command of everything else in our lives. Fortunately, the anemia can be alleviated with the help of iron supplements and a diet of iron-rich foods. Unfortunately, that means learning to eat beets.
The problem with beets, as half the world knows, is that they taste like dirt. (The other half—beet-lovers—prefers the euphemism "earthy," but they're not fooling anyone.) As food dislikes go, beets are a popular one. Australians apparently like the vegetable so much that they eat their burgers with a thick slice of beet on top. But in the U.S., it's hard to find people who grew up liking beets. Far more common are tales of negative childhood experiences with canned beets, gritty magenta slabs that contaminated everything else on the plate.
Even the foodies on Chowhound have at least a half dozen threads devoted to overcoming beet antipathy. (My favorite description: "They taste like basement.") And beet-haters were heartened to learn in November 2008 that the incoming president was one of us. "I always avoid eating them," Barack Obama told the Associated Press shortly after his election. Sure enough, beets are nowhere to be found in the White House vegetable garden.
Beets are, however, chock full of useful nutrients, including iron. So this expectant and tired mama decided it wouldn't hurt to try to add them to her diet.
I didn't grow up eating beets—not even the canned variety—but my exposure to them as an adult has been uniformly unpleasant. It doesn't help that some of the classic flavor accompaniments for beets, like goat cheese and dill, are also high on my list of food aversions. Beet soup, with its chunks of floating vegetables and handfuls of dill tossed in, is one of the few dishes I can't even politely choke down.
Learning to like beets was going to be enough of a challenge that I didn't want to start with some third-rate beet dish. Luckily, beet salad has inexplicably become a trend in fancy-pants restaurants over the past few years. So I decided to dive in by sampling some top-notch versions. First up was a birthday lunch at Volt, Bryan Voltaggio's restaurant in Frederick, Maryland. I'm a big fan of Voltaggio—his halibut with rhubarb-ginger compote is one of the best things I've eaten all year—so I confidently ordered the Tuscarora Farm organic beet salad and prepared to have my taste buds tickled.
Embarrassingly, I couldn't hide my dismay as I bit down into a roasted baby beet, some watercress, and foamy goat cheese. The texture of beets, chewy but not smooth, has always unsettled me as much as the taste, and my sister cracked up as I lunged for my water to wash down the rest of the bite. Maybe, I hoped, the beet meringue would be more palatable. Although it definitely presented a different texture, that texture was similar to Styrofoam—and not in a good way. Strike one.
Next my husband and I drove to the Inn at Little Washington for an anniversary dinner. We were promised an exquisite dining experience, and once again I allowed myself to believe that high-end cooking could magically cure my beet aversion. The Beet Fantasia was another salad of the traditional roast baby beets, creatively altered beet (this time as a mousse), and the ubiquitous goat cheese. It was beautifully presented, but had the same pungent taste and gritty texture. My husband ended up eating most of the dish. Strike two.
Before giving up, I made one last stand at Acadiana, the New Orleans-style restaurant a few blocks from our house in Washington. Their salad features pickled beets, sliced very thinly, which alleviated my texture issue but still left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. But when I composed a bite of greens, beet, and pralines, the dish was transformed. Many people complain that beets are too sweet and need to be cut with more acidic ingredients. To my taste, however, beets are tangy, almost sour. Combining them with something like a caramelized nut brings out the sweetness and actually makes the beet—dare I say it? —tasty. Success!
In order to really incorporate beets into my diet, however, I wanted to be able to prepare them at home. And that's where things got tricky. I stopped by the White House farmers' market (beet ban or no, the First Lady doesn't have far to go to get her beet fix) to pick up a variety of beets from some local growers. The first thing I noticed was that fresh beets do not look appealing. They are filthy, with stringy roots that dangle like hair on a witch's chin and gritty greens that clog my market bag.
I reminded myself that potatoes and carrots aren't exactly lovely straight from the ground either and headed home to prepare some beet goodness. In the aftermath of Obama's beet declaration, outraged foodies rushed to offer their best beet recipes, guaranteed to convert any beet hater, so I had plenty of options. I started with a beet hummus, which one food writer swears is the way to win over people traumatized by beets. I can see why, because it's barely possible to detect beets in the dip, aside from the gorgeous cranberry hue they give it. The earthiness of the beets is masked by yogurt, cumin, lemon and orange juice, garlic, and chickpeas—and the end result is delicious. But it felt like cheating to simply camouflage a food I was trying to like.
So I set about making my own pickled beet salad, using a recipe from famed Southern cooks Scott Peacock and the late Edna Lewis. I splashed some olive oil on a handful of golden and red beets, wrapped them in foil, and tossed them in the oven for an hour. Soon my kitchen was filled with the smell of roasting dirt. To my surprise, it was pleasantly familiar, transporting me back to my grandparents' home. It's the smell of holiday dinners, where beets were among the dishes I was never required to eat and therefore barely noticed. I found myself craving a Jell-O salad.
Meanwhile, I boiled down a sweet ginger syrup with cider vinegar, sugar, ginger, and cloves. Once the beets had cooled, I sliced them as thin as possible—no gritty chunks here—and marinated them overnight in the syrup. On their own, the slices still tasted unbearably beety. But when they were placed atop a bed of spinach with some oranges and walnuts, and topped with a vinaigrette made with my favorite sweet white wine vinegar from Zingerman's, a wonderful alchemy occurred. The earthy taste disappeared, replaced by sweet notes. Before my husband could lean over for a bite, I'd cleaned the plate.
I'm pleased to have found a way to make beets appetizing. And I'm tempted to send my tips to Obama, just in case he's inspired to give beets a go. But then again, one of the perks of being president has to be that you don't have to eat beets if you don't want to. I'm pretty sure that's why Obama took Russian President Dmitry Medvedev out for burgers instead of a big bowl of borscht.
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