It's too bad that so many people grew up avoiding beets, with their jewel colors and sweet, delicate flavor. Johnny Monis, chef-owner at Komi restaurant near Dupont Circle, had a different beet experience growing up: He actually liked them, but he understands why many don't. "Beets from a can are completely different," he says. "I wouldn't call that a vegetable."
These days, fresh beets are experiencing something of a renaissance, and more Washington area restaurant-goers are being served a range of beet soups, sauces, sorbets and even cocktails.
Beets have been a staple of American cuisine for years, but "they never have had the same popularity as other vegetables," says culinary historian Bruce Kraig. In the United States, beets have largely been reserved for the production of granulated sugar -- about 50 percent is made from beets, according to Sugar Producer magazine.
Irwin Goldman, a horticulturalist and beet expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, estimates that 100,000 tons of so-called table beets are grown in this country each year. Most of the beets end up canned -- responsible, perhaps, for a generation of people who avoid eating the root vegetable altogether.
Patrons of fine-dining establishments have come to expect them on a menu, just like they expect to see some sort of chicken dish, says Katsuya Fukushima, head chef at Cafe Atlantico and Minibar in D.C.'s Penn Quarter. "That's the balance you have to find," he says. "You're still serving the masses -- you have to find a clever way to serve chicken."
Why explore uncharted beet territory? Part of it is the challenge, says Jonathan Krinn, chef and owner of 2941 in Falls Church. "A good chef tries to take something that normally guests don't get excited about and gets them to say, 'Wow.' It's one of the challenges chefs enjoy," he says. Krinn's rule of thumb is, "The better it is for you, the harder it is to make it good."
Beets certainly qualify as being good for you. Among vegetables, they are nutritional overachievers. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Nutrient Data Laboratory, they are an excellent source of folates and potassium. They also are respectably loaded with calcium, iron, magnesium, vitamin C, thiamine, riboflavin, and vitamins A and K -- particularly the greens.
Fans of "Gilligan's Island" might remember that beets' incredible nutritional value figured in an episode of the 1960s sitcom. The castaways ate radioactive vegetables and developed superpowers: Mary Ann could see for miles after eating carrots; Gilligan was superhumanly strong after eating spinach; and Mrs. Howell was incredibly agile after eating beets. A single serving of beets could account for Mrs. Howell's dexterity and increased energy.
Getting the beet-averse to try beets is not easy. Chefs often go for the shock-and-awe approach. At W Domku Bar and Cafe in the Petworth neighborhood of the District, a cake made with grated beets (a la carrot cake) and served with an English custard is certainly a step off the beet path. Its beet coloring is striated rather than all through the cake, and its root vegetable flavor is prominent but not cloying. Some customers order the cake just because it is so peculiar, chef Eric Evans says, and some return specifically for it.
Cafe Atlantico's red beet mojito is another idea that captures diners' imaginations. "Once they have [the drink, they find] it's quite tasty," says Fukushima, though he adds: "Iif you don't like beets, you're not going to like it."
Another unusual beet preparation on the Atlantico menu is the "frozen beet soup," which is a sorbet served with thinly sliced poached beets and raw scallops. And Fukushima is working on a beet "Twizzler," using long strands made with an apple peeler and braided to resemble strawberry licorice.
Fukushima has featured a beet ravioli made of sliced beets poached in a simple syrup and wrapped around a goat cheese mousse. He also has filled the beet ravioli with chocolate mousse.
Fukushima's philosophy is that all foods are flavors. "When you treat something outside the box, you might come up with something out of the ordinary," he says.
Komi's current menu includes tuna served with a beet tzatziki, a sauce traditionally made with cucumber and yogurt. Monis uses golden, chioggia (striped) or white beets because their flavor is mild and they won't color the yogurt too much. Despite the bad rap beets often get, "no one has ever asked us to serve the tuna without the tzatziki," Monis said.
Chioggias, recently available at farmers markets in Falls Church, Silver Spring and Dupont Circle, and sometimes called candy cane beets, make for an arresting presentation. Try boiling and slicing them and serve them in a salad for the best view of the bull's-eye pattern. This Italian heirloom variety also can be a little more peppery than the red version.
Beet roots are usually available in the spring and fall. This year, the cold, wet spring led to a longer beet season than normal, says Bernadine Prince, co-director and founder of FreshFarm Markets, which operates farmers markets in the Washington area.
Beets have come a long way in the past five years. Traditional red beets always had been a market staple, but more recently farmers have brought out chioggias, golden and even bull's blood beets, which are sold primarily for their brilliant red leafy tops. "Farmers are talking to customers more and [as a result] the variety has changed," Prince says.
For Monis, beets -- at least fresh ones -- are second nature. As a child, the Greek chef ate them with yogurt, so they were a natural for Komi's menu. "I love them," Monis says. "They're nature's candy."
Susan Breitkopf last wrote for Food on hardware store tools that are used by professional chefs in the kitchen.