Once there was just the crimson beet, but now beets are also gold, orange, white, and candy striped. They can be perfectly round or long and slender, no bigger than the tip of your thumb or as big as your fist. Beets are available most of the year but are best from summer through early winter. When selecting a bunch of beets, if all the roots are equally fine, choose the bunch with the smallest leaves that are in the best condition (not yellowed or tattered). The greens are an indication of freshness for the roots; if they look moist and fresh, the roots will be too. If you are buying beets without leaves, avoid any that look dry, cracked, or shriveled.
Beets go especially well with lemon and orange, vinegar, any form of cream, onions, walnuts, parsley, caraway seeds, dill tarragon and mustard. Allow about 5 oz per serving.
To prepare: Cut off the leaves, leaving 1-2 inches stem on the beets, and keep the rootlets, or tails, in place. Pack the beets and leaves separately in perforated plastic vegetable bags and store in the refrigerator crisper. Scrub beets well just before cooking but do not remove the skin.
In cooking, both roots and leaves bleed their colors into any dish they are in-except for golden beets, which hold their color. Cooked beets are wonderful hot or cold. Serve small beets whole; slice larger ones into sections or rounds. Young, tender beets are delightful grated raw into a salad. Beets of any size are delicious steamed, baked, and microwaved.
To boil: For every 1 pound prepared beets, bring 12 cups of water and salt to taste to a boil in the stockpot. Add the beets, rapidly return the water to a boil, then cook, covered, until tender when pierced through with at thin skewer or knife tip. Allow about 20 minutes for small and baby beets, 30-35 minutes for medium and 45 to 60 minutes for large beets. Drain, then plunge into cold water to cool. When cool enough to handle, slice off the stems and rootlets and slip off the skins.
To steam: Arrange the prepared beets in a single layer in a steaming basket over 1 to 2 inches boiling water. Cover and steam until tender when pierced through with a thin skewer or knife tip, 25-30 minutes for small beets, 35-40 minutes for medium, and up to 60 minutes for large beets. Add boiling water to the steamer as needed.
To microwave: Place 5 medium unpeeled beets in a 2 quart baking dish. Add 1/4 cup stock or lightly salted water. Cover and cook on high until tender when pierced with a thin skewer, 12 to 18 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes. Cool the cooker at once.
Credit: The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer