When planning a menu for dinner, there are several choices to be made. Generally speaking, a menu consists of a protein, a starch of some sort, and at least one vegetable. Menu planning in 1900 was not that different, but was made more challenging by lack of access to the variety of goods that we take for granted today. Walk into any supermarket and you are greeted by lettuce and tomatoes, oranges and apples of all sorts and varieties. Because of transportation and food preservation methods, we are no longer bound by what is available in any given season. This concept was already affecting food choices of people in cities in 1900, but on the farm, they were still eating very seasonally. In the back of the White House Cookbook a month by month list entitled “Varieties of Seasonable Food to be obtained in our markets during the year,” shows the fluctuation in the kinds of vegetables that would be available at any given time. This is the list of vegetables for February:
White potatoes, sweet potatoes, cabbage, onions, parsnips, oyster plant, okra, celery, chiccory, carrots, turnips, Jerusalem artichokes, French artichokes, Brussels-sprouts, beets, mushrooms raided in hot-houses, pumpkin, winter squash, dry shallots and garden herbs for seasoning put up in the dried state.
The list isn’t very long, and if you notice, it is mostly vegetables that are fairly cold-tolerant and/or preserve well, either by drying, or cellaring. Potatoes and carrots are perhaps the most common vegetables on the list, but today I want to give a shout out to one of my favorite vegetables, one that sometimes gets overlooked for distaste by kids and adults alike, the beet.
At a historic dinner last week, a younger guest, probably around 10, was very excited about pie for dessert, but not so much about the beets that sat in front of him. He was respectful about it, but not inclined to try the strange purple vegetable that was not a common part of his diet. This particular recipe, Sugared Beets, is one of the best we’ve found. It has delighted dinner guests all season as they are surprised at how much they actually enjoy the vegetable. People who come vowing to try everything at least once are surprised to find that not all beets taste bad. Several staff members on this farm are big fans of beets. One staff member even considered how beets would taste as a pizza topping and wondered if this would be a way to entice more young people to eat beets (he was going to go home and try this out). I made a deal with the young man at the dinner that if he tried the beets I would make sure he got a piece of pie (perhaps he didn’t know that I would give him the pie anyways). Turns out he actually liked them! One small victory for this winter season vegetable.
I know that not everyone is going to like beets, but I still encourage everyone to try them when they are prepared in a different way. Sugared Beets taste considerably different (better?) than Pickled Beets, and Roasted Beets have so much more flavor than some of their boiled counterparts. Beets come in all kinds of different shapes and sizes. Some are pink, some are red, some are purple, and some are white. Some are solid, some are striped horizontally, and some are striped vertically. They are what we call a root vegetable, because they grow under the ground, and they will preserve well both in a cellar for a time, or in a jar. Several older guests tell us about the beets that their grandmothers used to can every year, and I get the feeling that those were beets with vinegar, the proverbial Pickled Beet. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but Sugared Beets are a lot more accessible. So no matter if you are 10 or 50, you should give these a try to add a little variety and color to a drab winter diet.
We’ll start with Boiled Beets because they are part of the Sugared Beets recipe, but if you don’t want to spend time boiling fresh beets, you can pick up a can of them at the supermarket and they will work just fine. In fact, using canned beets makes the Sugared Beets a 20-minute recipe.
Wash and cook whole in boiling water until soft; one to four hours. Old beets will never be tender, no matter how long they may be cooked. Drain and put in cold water, so that skins may be easily removed. Serve cut in quarters or slices.
4 hot boiled beets
1 1/2 Tablespoons sugar
3 Tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
Cut beets in one-fourth inch slices, add butter, sugar, and salt; reheat for serving.
—Both recipes from Page 256 of The Boston Cooking School Cookbook
So there it is, a pretty straightforward way to add color and variety to your meals, as we all anxiously await the Spring thaw that will usher in asparagus, pea, and lettuce season here in Iowa. We will continue to explore the seasonality of food this year as we think about health and wellness on the farm.