There were beets hanging in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, as well as being cultivated for both love and money in ancient Greece and Rome.
The difference was: those cultures were growing beets to eat the greens sprouting from the top of the root. It was a very long time and far away, the 1500s in northwestern Europe, that people figured out the root was arguably better to eat than the greens.
Despite their amorous appeal, the secret to the vegetable’s current popularity with chefs is its sweetness, essentially its sugar. I’ve had a five-course meal with beets the star of every single course.
From the start, the trick was getting the sugar where you could taste it, a process made easier a few centuries ago when a system was developed for extracting “beet sugar.” It was only a matter of time before cooks discovered that roasting and other forms of caramelization invite that same sugar to the surface and make the root of the beet one of the sweetest vegetables of all.
Beets arouse strong feelings, like Brussels sprouts or cilantro. It seems that few people say, “Beets, yeah, I like ‘em okay.” People love them or hate them. And if you are one of those who hate them, then the past few years must have frustrated you, with roasted beet salads gracing every menu and beet purees turning up alongside meat or fish like mashed potatoes from Mars. We’ve even seen a delightful trend in restaurants and supermarkets of offering beets in many colors, not unlike Joseph’s coat in the Bible story.
It’s the deep, staining color of going-on-purple beets that produces their only drawback when it comes to roasting home. Sure, the smart people might use kitchen gloves, but I have never counted myself in that number. I simply follow the traditional directions: roast the beets in their skins in the oven until the skins are crinkled and the inside feels crisp-tender, then use a paring knife to carve off the skin.
I typically manage to keep beets from staining my clothes – by wearing an apron, for starters – but nothing can save my fingers from being “beet red” for the next day or two. It is, among home cooks, a red badge of courage.
Though some of the earliest culinary uses of “beetroot” (as it’s helpfully called in other English-speaking countries) hail from Scandinavia, the real mother lode of recipes comes to us from the other side of Europe, specifically Poland and Russia. It’s there that beets not only found themselves roasted or pickled in vinegar but even pureed into an iconic soup.
That’s how borscht came into existence. And thanks to Jewish immigrants from the region, that’s how comics working resorts of New York’s Catskills came to call it The Borscht Belt. Maybe we should simply call those immigrants the Beet Generation.
ROASTED BEET, WALNUT & FETA SALAD
During this festive season, your go-to salad might need an upgrade – and we think beets are the way to go, both for color and for flavor. Walnuts play a role, not only for texture in the salad but for the hint of nutty flavors from walnut oil in the vinaigrette dressing. And of course, using Champagne Honey Mustard is always an upgrade when it comes to tangy and sweet at the same time.
1/2 cup good-quality roasted walnut oil
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon syrup from mandarin orange segments
5 tablespoon sherry vinegar
3 teaspoons Fischer & Wieser’s Champagne Honey Mustard
1 tablespoon finely minced shallots
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 pound roasted beets, peeled and sliced
1 cup cherry tomatoes, cut in half
1 cup mandarin orange segments (with syrup)
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
1/2 cup toasted walnuts
To make the vinaigrette, place the roasted walnut oil and all the other vinaigrette ingredients in a glass jar and close the lid tightly. Shake vigorously to combine. Adjust the seasonings to taste. Allow the dressing to sit at room temperature for 1 hour to allow the flavors to develop before serving.
Cut the beets in half or quarters (if you’re using larger beets, cut into 1/2-inch dice) so they’re bite size. Place the beets in a small bowl, add 1 to 2 tablespoons of the vinaigrette and toss until the beets are coated. Just before serving, place the arugula in a large salad bowl. Add about 3 tablespoons of the vinaigrette. Toss to coat the leaves lightly, then taste and add more vinaigrette if needed.
Transfer the arugula to a platter or individual salad plates. Arrange the tomatoes, beets and orange segments on the greens and sprinkle them with the feta and walnuts. Serves 4
John DeMers is director of culinary hospitality at Fischer & Wieser’s Culinary Adventure Cooking School in Fredericksburg. He is the author of both Fischer & Wieser cookbooks, Fredericksburg Flavors and The Sauce, along with fifty-four other books ranging from cooking to travel to biography to novels. John can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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