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Here’s why you’ll be seeing Badger Flame beets on Austin menus next month

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com
The Badger Flame Beet was developed in Wisconsin over more than a decade of selecting beets that weren’t as earthy and whose leaves were less gritty and tough. The beet will be featured at Austin-area restaurants in February and at a pop-up dinner on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1. [Contributed by Urban American Farmer]

Beets are not known as a root vegetable that you can eat raw or whose leaves are soft and tender to eat.

But there’s a new beet developed by Irwin Goldman, farmer in Wisconsin, that is bright orange with stripes that make it look like a flame and is so tender and sweet, you can eat it without cooking.

The Badger Flame beet isn’t well-known around the country, but that’s about to change. Its seeds are for sale through Row 7, a seed company that started as a challenge from Blue Hill at Stone Barns chef Dan Barber to a vegetable breeder named Michael Mazourek to develop a squash that would be selected over time for its flavor and texture, and an Austin-based company called Urban American Farmer is working with local chefs to get the beets on menus across the city.

Trisha Sutton, founder of Urban American Farmer, and a team of volunteers planted the seed in October at Urban Roots Farm, and those beets, whose leaves look more like Swiss chard, will soon be hitting restaurants across the city.

She worked with Comedor chef Philip Speer to bring together chefs and speakers for a dinner on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 at Distribution Hall, 1500 E. Fourth Street. (Tickets are $160 per person and are on sale now via Foster ATX’s website, fosteratx.com.)

In partnership with Foster ATX and Made In, this pop-up dining experience will feature six courses from six chefs — 3 local and 3 visiting — and three speakers, Francisco Musi of Mexico City's heirloom corn company Tamoa, Charlotte Langley of the Toronto-based Scout Canning and Rich Shih, author of “Koji Alchemy.”

The dinner will be served with Fall Creek Wine and Desert Door cocktails. The participating chefs are Philip Speer of Comedor, Gabe Erales of Comedor, Todd Duplechan of Lenoir, Houston chef Chris Shepherd, Dallas’ Matt McCallister and Cara Stadler of Portland, Maine.

The beet celebration will continue after the dinner. In the month of February, look for Badger Flame beet dishes on the menu at Comedor, NadaMoo!, Hestia, Olamaie, Lenoir, Foreign & Domestic, Fixe Southern House, Suerte, Juniper and Farmhouse Delivery.

Sutton received a $5,000 grant from the Austin Food and Wine Alliance last year to help kick off this project, and she says the goal of both the dinner and the restaurant push is to showcase vegetables that you can grow using advanced non-GMO breeding techniques and new ways to use those ingredients in food. With the speakers, it’s also a way to celebrate and share stories about heritage culinary techniques, like koji-making and heirloom breeding.

This batch of beets was grown at Urban Roots, but over the coming year, Sutton says she’s hoping to find other farmers who are interested in working with chefs to develop varietals that do well in Texas.

“When chefs plan their menus, they were looking at previous years to know what they had available,” she says. “Farmers looked back on last year to see what sold well.”

Eventually, Sutton says she hopes the beets and any other specialty produce they develop will end up in grocery stores, where customers currently find produce sections that look mostly the same 365 days of the year. “When you only see the same vegetables in the store, sometimes it’s so boring,” she says.

Shishito peppers and Hatch peppers are recent examples of specific varietals that became well known enough that, because customers asked for them by name, you can find them widely at restaurants and grocery stores.

As for the Badger Flame beets, the demand for the beets so far has been stronger than she expected. “At first, I was asking, ‘Can I sell all these beets?’ Then I asked, ‘Why didn’t you plant more beets?’”