At casual bistros in France, beets in vinaigrette are a component of the ubiquitous vegetable appetizer ``crudites.'' Although crudites are by definition raw vegetables, the cooked beets are an exception.
When beets are the main focus of the salad, chefs often match them with walnuts. They also like to add sturdy, slightly bitter greens like Belgian endive, which are complemented by the beet's smooth, soft texture and sweet taste. This delicious salad makes a beautiful, simple appetizer.
Wherever beets are used, dressings and sauces play on the vegetable's natural sweetness, either accentuating or balancing it.
Polish beet recipes call for cream sauces seasoned with a pinch of sugar and a squeeze of lemon juice. Swedish beet salads are flavored with vinegar, sugar and horseradish. Russians like to marinate beets with vinegar and pickling spices. Iranians favor beet salads with a tangy dressing of yogurt and mint. A classic American recipe is Harvard beets, with a bold sweet-and-sour taste made with generous amounts of vinegar and sugar.
To include beets in a quick menu, choose small ones, as they cook faster than large beets. Cooking enough for several meals is another way to save time. In some markets, beets are now sold cooked and are displayed in plastic trays in the produce section. If you buy these, you can have beet salad ready as quickly as the Parisians do.
Once beets are cooked, they are easy to peel. Their skins slip right off under cold water. If you slice the beets parallel to their ``equator,'' the slices have attractive concentric circles. Be careful to avoid getting beet juice on your clothes - the stains are usually permanent.
Choose beets that are firm and unblemished. When beets are sold with their leaves, these can be added to the pot for the last five minutes of cooking, so you have two vegetables in one - a root vegetable and a green vegetable. The greens have attractive red stems and a pleasing spinach-like taste.
If I'm preparing beet salad without lettuce, I chop the cooked beet greens, season them with a bit of vinaigrette and serve them surrounded by the sliced beets. At other times I use the greens as a separate vegetable and prepare them just like spinach.
* In northern France, beets are often paired with Belgian endive mixed with delicate greens like mache. For this tasty, quick variation, I use packaged, rinsed baby lettuces. You can steam or bake beets, but simmering them in water is the fastest way to cook them.
BEET SALAD WITH WALNUTS 5 small beets, about 1 inch in diameter
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, optional
3 tablespoons oil
6 cups mixed baby lettuces
1/4 cup walnut pieces
Rinse beets, taking care not to pierce skin. Cut off greens, leaving about 1 inch of stem attached to beets. Place beets in pan of boiling water. Cover and simmer over low heat until beets can be pierced easily with tip of sharp knife, about 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool. Run beets under cold water and slip off skins. Slice or dice beets.
Whisk vinegar with salt, pepper and mustard in small bowl. Whisk in oil. Place lettuces in large bowl and toss gently with dressing. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add beets and toss very gently. Sprinkle with walnuts and serve. Makes four to six servings.
Nutritional data per serving: Calories, 120; protein, 3 grams; carbohydrates, 6 grams; fat, 10 grams; cholesterol, none; sodium, 37 milligrams.
Faye Levy's latest book is ``30 Low-Fat Meals in 30 Minutes'' (Warner Books).