Crunchy leafy greens get piled on a plate, a quick dressing of fresh-squeezed lemon juice and olive oil is whisked together and drizzled on, a bit of a remarkably smokey blue cheese is crumbled about, and gently, ever so gently, a few generous slices of pickled beet are perched overall. A few grinds of pepper and some delightfully crunchy large grained salt is deployed, and the winter blahs are banished in a riotous blend of creamy and crunchy and salty and sweet and smokey and earthy and GREEN. And yes, you heard me.
And they are wondrous.
Let’s be honest. It’s Chicago and it is January. What vegetables I can find in the market tend to be cowering, slightly shriveled shadows of what can be found in summer. Greens seem to be the only thing that hasn’t fallen into utter despair. February will only get worse, and all I will want to do is bury myself under piles of mashed potatoes and meat, hardy things that will power me through the greyest days of winter. But I still crave the fresh taste of a good veggie. Standing in front of my pantry door, my eyes light upon the jars of beets I pickled in September. It was a rash experiment, born of my uncontrollable desire to purchase enough vegetables at the farmer’s market every week to feed five people even though I am but one, and then manage to find an excuse to hit two farmer’s markets in one week, wild-eyed and giddily happy as my hands riffle through vegetables that were in the ground not 24 hours ago. And so on a bright September afternoon, after staring at the giant pile of beets taking up the entire lower shelf, I decided to pickle the beets, something I had not done before. Standing in front of my pantry door four months later, I could not be more grateful.
“But wait,” you might be saying, “pickled beets?!?!? GROSS!” To those of you who say this, I say… try it. I dare you. It is possible you have only been exposed to those pickled beets of yore that came out of cans, looking one step firmer than a solid slab of cranberry “sauce” and tasting vaguely… wrong. Beets unto themselves are a very earthy flavor, with varying degrees of sweetness dependent on variety. All character was lost in those sad aluminum cans. This experience may have stopped you from enjoying beets as an adult, and you are missing out. A freshly roasted beet can be a thing of perfection, a deeply toned rosy gem that is welcome on the plate in the dead of winter when all else is brown and grey (I say this since we apparently are being robbed of wonderful white snow this winter in Chicago.) Pickling them takes them a few steps further. First you roast them slowly with rosemary, then pack them gently with slivers of red onion into clean, hot jars, adding in a some cloves and allspice. A hot sugary tangy brine is poured over all, and after a luxurious water bath that seals everything in and a few impatient weeks where all of those ingredients get to know each other, their flavors mating to create whole new generations of flavors, you have pickled beets that sit on the plate, fetching in their ruby glory, tasting of Christmas. And who doesn’t like Christmas?
Pickled Beets – one of many possible variations
This made five pints.
note: these are actual properly canned beets, using a hot water bath and everything, so these can sit on a shelf in your pantry for months. Many people seem to be afraid of pickling, convinced they will die of botulism if they do not face the right direction or on the right foot while uttering the correct incantation during the part where you seal the jars. DO NOT BE AFRAID. There are only a few simple protocols, and it comes down to boiling clean jars, soaking new canning lids and the rings in hot water, and whatever you use to ladle. Just… a lot of boiling water. It will be fine. This particular recipe is a conglomeration of techniques I researched, and I picked the parts I found most interesting. Turns out, that was the tastiest way to do it.
I have my grandma’s old kettle for boiling jars, which is narrower than the giant canning kettles they sell now, so I could only do three at a shot comfortably. Still worked out. You will need a kettle tall enough to completely submerge the jars, and you will need those nifty jar tongs, and cooling racks (the ones you use for baking). I know other people that use magnetized whatnot to grab the lids, but I just use a clean knife that has been dipped in hot water, slide it under the lid, then maneuver it over the jar and slide it right off. No touching of the underside with my hands. Ta da!!
2 bunches beets (2 1/2 lbs.), cut into quarters, leaving the peels on (Use GOOD beets. These do not have to be farmer’s market beets, but do not pick some sad spongy thing up at the market you think you can salvage into a good pickled beet. You need to start with good beets to get pickled beets, otherwise people will try them, think they are nasty, and throw them at you. Not only have you further disillusioned these people about the wondrous beet, you have likely now gotten your shirt/face/wall stained with beet juice. That stuff stains everything.)
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
Preheat your oven to 400º. Line a jelly roll pan with tin foil, lightly oil with vegetable oil, and loosely arrange the cut beets on the sheet, skin side down. Add the sprigs of rosemary. Cover with another sheet of foil, poking a few steam holes here and there. Roast until thoroughly cooked, about 45 minutes, checking after 30, then then let cool. As soon as they are cool enough to handle, slip the skins off. Use your freshly stained fingertips to apply some impromptu and totally natural lip tint and blush. (I chose to roast over boiling them because I like the idea that I am keeping more of the vitamin and nutrient goodness in them. And I just like using the beet juice as lip tint when I slip the skins off.)
While the beets are cooling, take this opportunity to wash your jars and new canning lids (NEVER reuse old ones, you can reuse the screw-top rings, but not the lids). Make sure the rims to all of your jars have absolutely no nicks in them. The jar will not seal. Bring a whole bunch of water, enough to cover the jars by a good inch, in whatever kettle you are going to use for boiling the jars and boil the empty jars for about 5 minutes. Place your fresh canning lids and rings into a small baking pan and cover in yet even more boiling water. Pour more boiling water into another bowl and stick the ladle you intend to use for the brine and a funnel for putting it into the jars. If you finish this before the brine is done and before the beets have cooled, keep the jars in the hot water. Keep everything else in the hot water all the time. If like me you can’t fit all of the jars in, do this in two separate batches. In other words, do not boil the second batch of jars until after you have finished canning the first batch. Patience is rewarded.)
2 c. cider vinegar
1 c. water
1 c. sugar
1 3/4 tsp. kosher salt (this only applies to Morton’s Kosher Salt, and salt ratios in pickling are key. 1 Tbsp. of pickling salt = 1 Tbsp. + 3/4 tsp. Morton’s Kosher Salt, and the amount I have specified was calculated from needing half a tablespoon of pickling salt.)
1 cinnamon stick
Combine all of the ingredients in a medium non-reactive saucepan (preferably not non-stick) and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for fifteen minutes. Commence pickling.
The roasted beets, sliced into 1/4″ thick or more wedges (I sort of haphazardly did this, so the beets are like snowflakes, no two slices were alike!)
The hot brine
1 small red onion, cut into small wedges
3 whole cloves per jar
3 whole allspice berries per jar
Hot, sterilized jars
Before I begin, this is just how I do the canning part. Other people may have other methods, and that’s fine. Just make sure you keep everything hot and clean. Now…
Remove the sterilized jars from the hot water bath, and keep the water bath simmering. Keep extra boiled water on hand for if the water level dips below the level of the jars during the water bath process. Layer the beets and onions into the sterilized jars, distributing them fairly evenly. If you are doing this in two batches, you can still fill the jars for round two, just to make sure. You will want to make sure that your beets and onions go all the way up until there is only 1/2″ space left in the jar. Once you have your beets and onions in, place the cloves and allspice berries in the jar. You may wish to shove them down in a little further. Using a sterilized ladle and a funnel (technically you don’t need it, but it helps immeasurably to keep the jars clean, and everything surrounding the jars), gently pour the brine into the jars, all the way up to the top level of the beets, leaving that 1/2″ of space at the top of the jar.
What follows is probably not how most people would tell you to put the lid on, but it’s how I was taught, and dammit, it’s what I continue to do. Haven’t had a bad batch yet. Dip your finger swiftly into the boiling water and run it around the rim of the jar, making sure the rim is completely clean and clear of any fleck of material (other than the hot water you just ran around it). Take the butter knife you have had in with the lids, slide it underneath one of the lids and carefully slide it out of the hot water and onto the jar, holding down the top lightly with your finger as you slide the knife out from under it. Make sure it is evenly settled on the rim, and screw on one of the rings. As soon as the jars have been lidded, use your jar grabbers and gently lower them into the boiling water bath they were just sterilized in. Make sure they are covered by at least an inch of water and do not touch each other. Cover the kettle (to prevent the water level from going down too fast from evaporation) and boil for 35 minutes. You heard me. 35 minutes. Check occasionally to make sure the tops are still covered with water. If not, add more boiling water in until they are.
After that, use your jar grabbers and remove to a cooling rack. As they cool, the pressure will shift and you will hear that magical “ping!” sound that is the lids sucking in, forming the vacuum seal. You will be tempted to try to press them down, but don’t. If after an hour you haven’t heard all of them “ping!”, gently press on the lid to see if it still has a little bubble on top (kind of like those things on the side of soda lids,) and you will be able to tell if it has sucked in without you noticing by whether or not it still has give. If, even after completely cooled, it has not pinged, you can either run it through the water bath again for ten minutes and see if that works, or just store that jar in the fridge and eat within a few weeks.
I think you can eat these immediately, but I let them sit for at least a month before I busted them open. Try them straight up, or try them on a leafy green salad with some good blue cheese, a bit of lemon dressing, and some good salt. You will be converted.