By Steven Hightower, Master Gardener
Cultivation and harvesting:
Beets can be sown or planted in Sonoma County throughout most of the spring and summer, with September the last chance before winter. Those planted this past July and August will be ready for harvest this month through October—most varieties will mature within 55 to 70 days. If you plant now you will be able to harvest in the late fall/early winter.
Beets prefer loose, well-drained soils but will tolerate a wide range. In high clay soils, added compost or other organic matter helps improve soil structure. Beets are sensitive to soil acidity—they prefer a pH of 6.2 to 6.8 but will tolerate 6.0 to 7.5. A low soil pH results in stunted growth. Beets make a fine raised bed crop since soils are generally looser and less compacted.
When planting beets from seed, sow the seeds 1/2-inch deep and in rows 12 to 18 inches or more apart. Space the seeds about one inch apart in the rows. When the seedlings are one to two inches tall, thin to about one plant per inch. As they grow, thin to about three to four inches between plants. (Tip: you can cook and eat the 'thinnings' - these small leaves are especially tender and flavorful.) Succession planting can be made at three-week intervals throughout the season. As with any plant, avoid seeding during hot daytime temperatures. It is best to cover the rows with floating row covers immediately after planting to deter leafhoppers, leaf miners, and other pests. Give plants regular water but avoid over-watering, and mulch after plants are established.
- My favorites are the Chioggia (55 days)—a sweet, slightly peppery Italian heirloom with beautiful concentric circles of red and white flesh.
- Golden beets (55 days) are a deep gold color, and taste "beety" but not quite as intensely red and earthy as red varieties.
- Bulls Blood (55 days) is an heirloom beet with a nice earthy yet sweet flavor. The leaves are a stunning red color, as is the beet itself, a bit darker and richer than usual. (This beet was listed pre-1900 in England. It may be the only decorative-leafed Victorian beetroot variety surviving.)
- Detroit Dark Red (60 days) is a well-liked deep-red variety that grows 21/2- to 3-inches in diameter.
- Red Ace (50 days) are very sweet, with slight color variation in concentric rings.
- Early Wonder (55 days) are small-medium in size, sweet, tender and purplish-red in color.
Beetroots can be boiled, steamed or roasted after being trimmed. They are easiest to peel if boiled or steamed, but roasting concentrates flavor, and provides a more intense "beetiness" if that is what is sought for a particular recipe.
Beet greens can be steamed or sautéed until tender. Avoid overcooking, as they turn a bit brownish, and are less fresh tasting.
Beet, goat cheese and arugula salad.
Cook smallish Chioggia and Golden beets until tender. Cool, peel, an cut into ½ inch pieces. Crumble a dryish goat cheese such as a Laura Chenel's Crottin, Redwood Hill Farm's California Crottin, or Goat's Leap Dairy's Carmela into the beets, add arugula leaves (wild from the farmer's market if possible) and toss with a citrus vinaigrette. If you have any, add some walnut or hazelnut oil to the vinaigrette, as their flavors marry well with the beets and goat cheese.
Roast red beets until tender, cool, peel and slice a little less than ¼ thick. Mix equal parts of mascarpone and any creamy goat cheese with some snipped fresh thyme and black pepper. Layer 4-5 slices of beet with the cheese mixture into little stacks (one for each diner), drizzle with good balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil or walnut oil, and sprinkle with sea salt.
Put into a blender, per person, one-two cooked beets, depending on size, 1 small scallion, white part, finely chopped, 1/3 cup canned beef boullion, ¼ cup sour cream, 1 tsp white wine vinegar, and sprinkling of salt and pepper. Blend until smooth. Chill, serve with a dollop of sour cream.
Beet greens with salt pork
Wash beet greens well, and cut off coarse stems. Tear the leaves into pieces. Dice a piece of salt pork or a couple pieces of bacon (meaty) and sauté in a dash of olive oil until rendered but not crisping. Add some finely chopped onion and sauté for another couple of minutes until softened. Add the greens, with just the wash-water clinging to them, cover and cook for about 6-9 minutes, stirring a couple times. Check to make sure they are tender. Add a few shakes of red wine or balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper to taste, toss and serve.