When I was growing up, my mother always told me, "We eat with our eyes first." While I still believe this to be true, I also think that our aesthetic has changed. Gone are the days when tomatoes need to be perfectly round, bright red globes; heirloom tomatoes, in all shapes, colors and sizes, have flooded the market and our tables. Why should beets not receive the same treatment?
The crapaudine beet -- its name coming from the French word for a female toad -- is just that, an heirloom variety of beet. It is, in fact, one of the oldest varieties, hailing from the time of France's Emperor Charlemagne. Aptly named, the crapaudine beet is lumpy and bumpy and may seem difficult to peel, but it's just as easy to use as a regular, garden-variety beet, and the deep purple flesh is much sweeter and tastier than that of a traditional beet. Look for a nearly black specimen that can have a shape ressembling anything from a long, thin carrot to a rather mangled-looking turnip.
Crapaudine beets are not easy to find in the States, but they are slowly growing in popularity. If you can't find them near you, you can grow them yourself (crapaudine beet seeds are available for order online). Here in France, organic crapaudine beets are starting to become available at outdoor markets; I seek them out whenever I can. It's traditional for farmers to offer both raw and already fire-roasted beets for purchase, which solves the peeling problem entirely. A fire-roasted beet's skin can simply be peeled off with the fingers (though gloves are highly recommended if you don't want to look as though you've been dying magenta Easter eggs).
Luckily, you can get the same easy-to-remove beet skin at home by roasting your beets whole before using them. Simply puncture the skin of the beet with a fork, wrap it in tinfoil, and roast it for about an hour at 400 degrees Farenheit, turning once for even cooking. Allow to cool, then peel the skin off with your fingers. Beets can be roasted like this ahead of time for easier use in recipes, but they will keep much longer if kept raw as long as possible.
What recipes, you ask? Use crapaudine beets in any recipe you might use a regular beet... just expect far more flavor! To give you a few ideas...
image: Emily Monaco