If you aren't cooking beets, you should be. They're cheap, widely available, and nutritious. When properly cooked, they feature velvety texture, earthy sweetness, and vibrant color that make them the focus of salads and sides.
If only they cooked faster. While roasting—the most common method—is easy (just wrap whole unpeeled beets in foil and throw them in the oven), even average-size beets need more than an hour to turn truly tender. Plus, you have to wait for the oven to preheat and then for the roasted specimens to cool before peeling. Also, beets cooked this way can't be seasoned; the salt merely sits on the skins.
I brainstormed ways to speed things up. Since water transfers heat more efficiently than air does, I tried boiling whole beets. This saved only 15 minutes. Peeling the beets with a vegetable peeler and cutting them into chunks shortened the cooking time to 25 minutes, but the beets leached flavor and inky color into the water and tasted washed-out. Steaming produced more flavorful results but took 50 minutes.
We often jump-start food in the microwave, so I gave that a whirl. I microwaved the beets for 20 minutes and then spread them on a baking sheet to finish in the oven, which took another 20 minutes. Not bad, but the cut surfaces browned, turning more savory than sweet—I wanted maximum sweetness.
Why not use the microwave to go all the way? Although it's a myth that microwaves penetrate all the way to the center of even the thickest food, they can easily penetrate to the interior of a beet chunk and heat the water molecules inside it, effectively steaming it from within. Indeed, the microwaved beets were tender in 25 minutes, the same as for boiling but without the washed-out flavor. Their surfaces were a tad dry, so I nuked another batch with ⅓ cup of water added to the bowl and covered it with a plate to trap steam.
These beets were silky and tender, and I could season them by adding a little salt to the water. And since I'd already peeled them, I could simply drain them and add them directly to a showstopper salad.
My hang-up with most beet salads—the kind tossed with goat cheese, nuts, and greens—is that the creamy cheese smears all over the other ingredients and turns muddy while the beets sink to the bottom of the bowl. So instead, I used the goat cheese as an anchor for the salad, thinning it with lemon juice and water; seasoning it with lemon zest, herbs, and spices; and spreading it across a serving platter. Then I topped it with a few handfuls of arugula and the beets (both lightly dressed with olive oil and more lemon juice), followed by toasted almonds for nutty crunch.
The “schmear” tactic worked well with blue cheese and yogurt, too, so I put together a couple more company-worthy salads. But given the speed and convenience of my new cooking method, I'll be micro-steaming beets for just about any salad or side.