Beet salad, without a recipe Credit: Sandy Oliver

I love beets. I grow both the red sorts such as Early Wonder Tall Top or Detroit Dark Red, and the newer golden sorts such as Touchstone Gold, which are a gorgeous contrast to the reds when you serve them together. I grow a lot of beets, and I store them for use all winter and well into spring, including right now. I hear that they are awfully good for us, rich in minerals (potassium, betaine, magnesium, folate, vitamin C and nitrates — sounds yummy) and low in calories, though with a fair amount of carbs. I would eat them even if they weren’t good for us.

By the way, if you don’t like beets (as many do not) substitute the word potato for beet in the following non-recipe for a flavorful, robust, anytime-of-year, side-dish salad.

Beets are supposed to be delicious in borscht, aka beet soup, but I haven’t met one I liked yet, so I use them all sorts of other ways. I like to have a few cooked ones around to cut up and toss into salads for flavor, color and substance. I pickle the little ones that I harvest. There is nothing wrong with hot, buttered beets, but I find I lean toward beet salads. However, if I had to get out a recipe every time I would probably not bother to make one. Instead, I assemble my salads according to a general pattern, and vary it according to taste and whatever I have on hand.

How many beets do you need? Depends on how many you are serving. I figure on one beet, no bigger than my fist, per person (ditto for potatoes). If you have young beet lovers with big appetites, add another beet or two to the pot. If you have little bitty kids or older people, use smaller beets or figure on leftovers.

I like red onions and celery chopped pretty small in beet salad. For every three or four beets, a medium red onion and a rib of celery works well. Add more if you want to. Or less. If you don’t have red onions, then plain old yellows are fine, so are scallions or shallots chopped up and added to taste. When there are a lot of cucumbers around here, I use those in the salad.

If there could be a secret ingredient in beet salad, it would be using pickled beets in addition to the plain boiled ones. I like the sharp vinegary flavor to brighten the salad. They’re good in potato salad, too, if you don’t mind them staining the potatoes, but generally I add dilly beans or dill pickles to potato salad. Add pickled stuff to taste.

To taste means, of course, that you have to sample as you go along, but after assembling two or three salads, you’ll be able to tell by the look of your salad when you have added enough.

If you are a beet beginner, take this beet advice: Plan on cooking them whole, unpeeled, otherwise they lose their color. They take awhile to cook, but you can do them in a pressure cooker to speed it up. Test for softness by sticking a knife into them. Generally, they slide right out of their skins under cold running water when done.

Another thing, plain canned beets work just fine. Cut up whole beets or use sliced ones. For quantities, follow the serving suggestions on the can’s nutrition label, but remember that those are often a bit on the generous side.

For dressing you can go in a mild, smooth mayonnaise direction, a sharp vinaigrette direction, or a combination of the two. I like a dab of mayo with a splash of a garlic vinaigrette. This is one of those times when a bottled dressing, if you have one, works just fine, but if you like making your own, be my guest. Sometimes, rather than use mayo, I add other white stuff — sour cream, thick yogurt or a small bit of soft goat cheese. You can add a little olive oil to smooth it out, and don’t forget the salt and pepper.

This all sounds pretty freewheeling, and it is. If you are an experienced cook, you are probably already cooking like this. If you are a beginner, trust me on this. Take a few deep breaths and dig in. You can’t possibly make a mistake, and remember you aren’t running a restaurant where you’ll get reviews in the paper or on the web. If you can’t stand the way the dressing tastes on the beets when you are all done, throw the mess into a colander, rinse it all off and start over.

Looking for … Speaking of beets, Marilyn Smith in Camden enjoyed a golden beet and winter squash soup she ate at a luncheon recently, and would love a recipe for one. Do you make this? Willing to share?

Bright Beet Salad

Servings vary

1 fist-sized beet, cooked, per serving

1 medium red onion, chopped, for every three or four beets

1-2 ribs of celery, chopped, for every three or four beets

Pickled beets, chopped, to taste, optional

Mayonnaise to taste, optional

Vinaigrette dressing to taste, optional

Salt and pepper to taste

Chives, scallions or chopped parsley for garnish.

1. Chop the cooked beets into bite-sized pieces and put into a bowl.

2. Add the onion, celery and optional pickled beets, and toss together.

3. Using the mayonnaise, vinaigrette or a combination, dress the salad lightly, sample, and add salt and pepper to taste.

4. Serve with herbs of choice for garnish.

Sandy Oliver, Taste Buds

Sandy Oliver Sandy is a freelance food writer with the column Taste Buds appearing weekly since 2006 in the Bangor Daily News, and regular columns in Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors magazine and The Working...