I planted my beets at the end of March and basically forgot about them. How sad is that?
Well, forgotten would be too strong a term. I knew they were there. I cast them a glance frequently in my tours around the garden. But they just never seemed to be getting big enough.
Finally I knew I had to do something about those beets. Would they still be edible, nearly five months later? I knew there would be more than we could possibly eat. I decided to pickle them.
Isn't the point of pickling to keep large quantities of food for later? I think that was the original point. Now we rarely give a second thought to pickled foods, unless it's some sort of gourmet pickle. But pickles do make interesting gifts, if you happen to know someone who likes pickles, and there are more pickle lovers out there than you might think.
Pickling these beets turned into quite a process. First there's the business of getting them out of the ground. I used my forked spade to get underneath them and heave them up a little. Try to get as much dirt off them right there, so it falls back into the garden. I put the beets into a plastic basic to give them a wash. Then cut the stems off with the leaves.
I brought the stems and the beets into the house separately. I wanted to cook the leaves, because they are delicious when they are fresh. That means snipping the leaves from the stems with scissors, then filling the kitchen sink with water and washing the leaves. They then go into a hot skillet with some extra-virgin olive oil to cook down. I season them simply with course salt and black pepper.
The beets, meanwhile, need to be separated according to size. The smaller ones will cook fast than the bigger ones, of course, so no sense putting them all in the same pot. In fact, I will eventually have five different piles of different-sized beets. I start a big pot of water to boil and give all the beets a good scrubbing in the sink.
The beets need to be cooked before the are pickled. I cook them in batches, testing for doneness with a trussing skewer, the lay them out on sheet pans to cool. When they are cool enough to handle, I remove the stem ends and skins with a pairing knife. The skins should peel away very easily. I then cut the cooked beets into pieces and put them aside. Depending on the size of your beets, you can cut them into wedges or slices, whatever you prefer.
The recipe I chose for pickling is traditional using vinegar, sugar, allspice, cloves and cinnamon. Jars and lids need to be in perfect condition and sterile. I purchased new pint jars and lids and sterilized them in a large pot with a strainer basket, the same aluminum pot I use for making pasta. Special canning pots and tongs for handling the jars are available. I fashion my own tool for handling the jars by wrapping rubber bands around the working end of my spring-loaded tongs.
Place the cleaned jars on a baking sheet and hold them in a 200-degree oven. To make 8 pints of pickled beets, you will need 3 quarts of cooked beets, cut into pieces. In a heavy pot, mix 2 cups sugar, 2 sticks cinnamon, 1 tablespoon whole allspice, 1 tablespoon whole cloves, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, 3 1/2 cups white vinegar, 1 1/2 cups distilled or filtered water.
Bring the pickling mixture almost to a boil, then add the beets, again bring almost to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Ladle the beets and liquid into hot canning jars, screw on lids and process for 30 minutes according to manufacturer's instructions, which generally means boiling the jars fully covered in the water bath.
Remove the jars to cool, then store in a cool, dark place. They should be ready to eat in six to eight weeks.