A word on beets: They taste a lot better than you think. Especially if you are over 20 and the beets are not more than a few days old. The most common contact the average American has with beets is with the variety that comes out of a can or jar. If the texture doesn't get you, the pickle juice will. But fresh beets are a simpler, more straightforward vegetable than you would think. Next time, don't pass them by with your shopping cart. Next time, stop, rummage through, pick small, uniformly rounded roots and consider the following suggestions.

Be inventive with the colorful vegetable. Add raw grated beets to salads or toss cooked cubed beets with orange sections and minced scallions to create a new version of salad.

But, because the red dye will stain, remember to wait until the last minute before adding beets to other foods.

Keep in mind that one pound fresh beets equals 3 cups cubed or 4 cups diced or sliced or grated beets.

Instead of fried potatoes, try fried beets. Slice raw, peeled beets very thin. Dip the slices in a beaten egg, then in seasoned bread crumbs. Fry in oil on both sides over medium heat until browned.

Try melting 2 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan and adding 6 cups of diced, cooked beets. Toss to coat. Add 3/4 cup orange juice and 1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger root. Continue cooking until the beets are heated through.

The simplest way to serve beets is to pick out a dozen small, young beets and saute' them whole in butter. Season generously with salt and pepper.

To retain the ruby color and distinctive flavor of beets, cook the vegetables before peeling. Best is to bake them, so the juice is not diluted by any water or steam. In a covered baking dish, bake the beets (2 inches in diameter) at 350 degrees for about 1 1/2 hours. Cool the beets in cold water and slip off the skins. Note: Bake in aluminum foil to avoid a rigorous workout of scrubbing the pan.

Beets will remain fresh in the refrigerator up to two weeks. For longer storage, it is best to layer them in sand in a cool (45 degrees or below), moist cellar.

So if you haven't given beets a fair chance, tonight is the time to try. With butter, salt and pepper in your kitchen it's just a quick trip through the express lane.

Express Lane list: beets, apple, red wine, honey, lemon, horseradish, chicken breasts

RUBY RED SAUCE WITH CHICKEN

(6 to 8 servings)

2 cups grated raw beets

1 1/2 cups peeled and grated apple

3 tablespoons dry red wine

2 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon grated lemon rind

3 to 4 tablespoons prepared horseradish

Salt and pepper to taste

6 chicken breasts

3 tablespoons butter

In a medium-size saucepan, combine the beets, apple, wine, honey, lemon juice and lemon rind. Add just enough water to cover. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes or until the beets are tender. Place this mixture in a food processor or blender and process until smooth. Add the horseradish, season to taste with salt and pepper and keep warm. Saute' chicken breasts in butter and serve with sauce spooned over.

From: "Garden Way's Joy of Gardening Cookbook" by Janet Ballantyne et al. (Garden Way, 1984).