The Alchemical Kitchen: Can’t beat beets

By Rebecca Brenner

Sip all winter on sour and sanguine beet kvass.
by Rebecca Brenner

kvassIn the basement, packing away holiday decorations and lights, I come across red and purple jewels from the late summer, early fall. I couldn’t be more excited to pull out my box of beetroots, buried in damp sand. I decide January is the perfect time for some beet kvass, a fermented tonic made from beets, whey and water. Finding my beets feels like one last holiday surprise. I take only a few—I hope my root vegetable stash will last me until next season’s CSA* and farmers’ markets.

I am often asked, “What do you do with all of the food you ferment, pickle and preserve?” I giggle to myself—this question use to deeply perplex me, because the answer seems so obvious. “Why, I eat and drink it.” But the more I was asked this question, the more I began to understand how complex it actually is.

I make space on the counter for the beets. I realize the answer has less to do with the simplicity of eating and more to do with the complexity of our current food system. The lack of personal confidence in the ability to feed ourselves comes from how accustomed we’ve come to the convenient food products that line our grocery store shelves 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So much so that home-canned produce lining our own DIY pantries seems exotic.

I rinse and scrub the beets. I understand the current grocery store culture has taught us that artisan food practices and preservation are meant for professionals only. It’s one thing to grow you own foods and shop the farmers’ market during the summer, but the large chain grocery stores lure us back after frost hits.

Even before peeling the beets they begin to stain my fingers and cutting board. I think of what I’m making—beet Kvass—and its long history in Russia. This sour DIY drink is said to be more popular then water in traditional Ukrainian homes; and every home, from the very poor to wealthy, never goes without it. Not only is kvass used as a health tonic, it is also used in making borscht, soups and salad dressings.

The movement of preservation from individual homes and into large commercial processing plants has all but removed our confidence as amateur food artisans. We use some company’s vegetable stock, tomato paste and kombucha instead of our own. Being the food enthusiast that I am, as I dry the beets on the cutting board I dream of American families full of confidence in their ability to grow, make and preserve their own foods. Not just as a novelty to pass around as Christmas gifts, but as a mindful movement in self-reliance and environmental care.

I begin to chop the beets and think how I’ve learned most of the artisan food and preservation practices I know on my own. Once I began preserving, I then had to trust my ability to incorporate those foods into my winter meals. At first I would worry—what to do with a freezer full of local fruits, string beans and pesto? Which recipe would DIY canned carrots be best in? How good will root vegetables really be after being stored in the cellar for a few months?

As I drop the beets into a quart Mason jar full of water and whey, I realize our lack of confidence is also fueled by fear. Fear that it won’t taste right. Fear it won’t look like it does in our recipe books. Fear that we’ll make ourselves sick. Fear that it will take all day and not be worth our time. So we turn it over to someone else.

I can’t help but to giggle again. This time at the absurdity of how far removed we’ve become from growing and processing our own food—especially as I make beet kvass. It is such a simple drink.

Most preservation and artisan food techniques are simple, and that is their beauty. Simple, whole foods grown by you or a local grower and made by you into all of the food you could hope for. It truly is a process that is for the people, by the people.

Beet Kvass

3 medium organic beetroots, peeled and chopped coarsely

1/4 cup whey, preferably made fresh from raw milk—(see the December 2009 “Alchemical Kitchen” column for how to get whey from raw milk). As a whey alternative, another tablespoon of sea salt works as well; just give it a little longer fermentation time.

1 tablespoon sea salt (or 2, if not using whey)

Filtered water (1-2 quarts)

Place beetroot, whey and salt in a 1-2 qt. jar. (A mason jar works well.) Add the water, filling the container. Stir well and cap tightly. Keep at room temperature (about 72 degrees) for two days (longer if using salt), then refrigerate.

When you have drunk most of the kvass, you may refill the same jar with water and keep at room temperature another two days. The resulting kvass will be slightly less strong than the first. After this second batch, discard the beets (compost, or add to soups/ stews) and start again.

Beet kvass is full of nutrients. Author Sally Fallon says, “One glass morning and night is an excelent blood tonic, promotes regularity, aids digestion, alkalizes the blood, cleanses the liver and is a good treatment for kidney stones and other ailments.”

Storing beets

At the end of each summer, store extra beets in a container, covered in damp sand or saw dust. Plastic storage bins with lids work well. Start with a layer of damp sand, then add beets, then more damp sand. Continue this process, much like making a lasagna, until you reach the top or run out of beets. Top off the container with damp sand and secure lid tightly to keep the dampness in. Store sealed container in an unheated basement, attic or closet for up to five months.

This article was originally published on December 30, 2009.