Beets are a divisive vegetable. On the one hand, they are beautiful and delicious. On the other, they dye everything in their path, including your fingernails if you are not careful, and some people are of the opinion that they taste exactly like a big clod of dirt.
Both undercooking and the absence of acid tend to make beets taste less pleasantly "earthy" and more unpleasantly "like dirt," and so one of the nicest things you can do with a beet is to pickle it. Indeed I think it is a mistake under almost any circumstances to serve a beet without including a little something acidic to raise it up. A squeeze of lemon or splash of vinegar will pull together a plate of roast beets, a pink risotto, or a beet rösti the way that butter finishes a sauce. As the Dude's rug is to his room, so is a touch of acid to a beet-oriented meal.
I like a very simple pickled beet. If I feel exceptionally fancy, I will add some sprigs of thyme or tarragon, or a small hot pepper. Anything more, in my view, just gets in the way.
I do consider it a fine idea to introduce other ingredients which will themselves be transformed by the influence of the star players. The two that come immediately to mind are peeled hard-boiled eggs and sliced onions. Either one will turn beautifully pink, if you are using traditional magenta beets rather than the golden kind, and their presence will not compete with the beets themselves.
My usual starting point with beets is to roast them whole. This has the advantage of a very low initial threshold of effort--just give them a quick scrub, rub with a little olive oil, and chuck them in the oven. Later, when they're fully cooked and fully cooled, the skin will slip right off, and you can cut them up and proceed as you like.
Then a recent article in the New York Times dining section pointed out that the juice from raw beets doesn't stain hands the way that cooked beet juice does. Also, cutting your beets into pieces of the same size before cooking means that they will cook more quickly and at the same rate. I gave this method a try for my most recent batch of pickles and found that it worked as advertised.
Still, if you decide to try the same thing, note that one way or another there comes a point at which cooked beet juice is in the picture. Wear an apron.
Pickling is really a snap if you don't mind storing the results in the refrigerator, rather than on the shelf. If you want to can these properly, you'll need to make sure the jars are sterilized and that the lids are new, and to process the filled jars in a boiling water bath.
1. Roast and slice some beets. You can roast them first, then wait until they are cool to skin and slice them, or you can do it the other way around. Or you can boil them (peel and slice first), in which case you should save the cooking water to use in making the brine. Either way, be sure to cook them until they are tender all the way through. An undercooked beet is not nice. This is the time consuming part of the project.
2. Loosely pack the cooked, sliced beets in a clean dry jar, or jars. Put a sprig of thyme or tarragon at the bottom if you like. Coarsely grind some pepper over the beets, then add the brine:
3. For the brine, mix cider vinegar, water, salt, and brown sugar together in the following proportions: For each cup of vinegar, use half a cup of water and half a teaspoon each of salt and sugar. (I found that one bunch of beets used about a cup and a half of vinegar.)
4. Heat the vinegar mixture to steaming hot. Don't breathe the fumes! Stir to be sure the salt and sugar are dissolved, then pour over the beets. Fill each jar to within a quarter inch from the top, then screw on the lids. If you come up a bit short on brine, just make up the difference with water.
5. Refrigerate for at least a couple of days and up to a few months.
BEETS AND EGGS
1. Hard boil some eggs. Peel them.
2. Make the beets as above, but when you pack them into the jars, layer them with the eggs. You'll need to make a good bit more brine, of course, to cover the added volume. Or, if you prefer, you can add eggs to the brine at any point later on, as you eat beets and free up space in the jar.
3. It's best to start eating the eggs after they've spent about three or four days in the brine, and to finish them off in a couple of weeks, before the texture becomes regrettably rubbery.