I was not always a fan of beets. It took a little green-gal bravery to introduce them into my menu. They always seemed so “earthy,” but not in a good way—more like, you know, dirt (Dirt, my gardener-daughter tells me, is an inaccurate term, anyway—“It’s soil, Mom.”). Well, okay…
A few years ago, I finally gave beets a try because they were showing up everywhere, and everyone in the culinary world was talking about them and making amazing dishes with them (sorta like bacon now—don’t hold your breath on that one.). For my first try, I roasted beets in the oven. Not bad—sugary and rich! Then they appeared on a salad I’d ordered at a nice restaurant. Super-thin slices of sweet and tangy explosions on my tongue. So THESE are beets! Then I found the golden beets—and the beet goes on, so to speak.
Most recently, I created a layered beet salad for that Fourth of July party we had a few weeks ago, stepping up the beet (Sorry, but this will probably continue.) with a special quick-pickle concoction, inspired by Chef Vivian Howard of PBS A Chef’s Life fame, only Chef Howard was pickling peanuts (Yeah, peanuts, gotta love it!) at the time. Her recipe sent me right to the kitchen– I just had to do something with those main ingredients, even if fresh-dug North Carolina peanuts were beyond my reach. So I reached for the beets.
Everything on the platter for my special salad was local and/or organic and incredibly fresh. I added a creamy dressing and some slices of rich goat cheese on the side, for those who wanted “it all.” My great photographer friend Darlene McGee captured this dish for me—what you call the “money shot,” I believe.
So see what you think; it’s fairly quick to pull together because the beets are made in advance and many of the ingredients can be sourced from your farmer’s market or nearby, independent retailers. Can’t beet it! (You KNEW I was going to say that, right?)
Just one word of caution before you begin—I used a mandolin to slice the fennel and red onion paper thin and feathery. Familiar with the mandolin? Well, if you are not, a mandolin is an indispensable slicing tool that can quickly create beautiful, uniform slices ranging from whisper thin to about a half-inch thick, and (on occasion) turn your kitchen into the bathroom scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho at the same time. I know because I’ve managed to pull this off…several times.
The mandolin is incredibly sharp, which is why it works so well and why I was not allowed to use it unsupervised for several years after the first few bloodbaths—there was always someone at the ready with 911 on speed dial. Practice makes…mmmm…much better and so does religiously using your safety guard and watching a good demonstration before you attempt your first recipe with a mandolin. Be brave, but be careful.
- Six or seven beets, washed, peeled and sliced a half-inch thick (about three cups)
- One cup of water
- One cup of brown rice vinegar (Eden Foods makes a great organic brown rice vinegar and they are a stellar company.)
- One teaspoon each: whole mustard seeds, whole coriander, whole cumin seeds
- Several shavings of lemon peel
- One whole star anise
- One-inch chunk of peeled fresh ginger root
- Your prepared beets
- Two or three fennel bulbs, trimmed, washed, and sliced super-thin on the mandolin
- One-half a medium red onion, sliced super-thin on the mandolin
- One large orange, peeled and sectioned (Use a technique called “suprêmes” in French cooking: cut off the very top and bottom of your orange with a sharp paring knife. Then carefully use the knife to remove the peel, cutting from top to bottom. Now cut in between the sections or “suprêmes.” You end up with lovely little orange sections, minus the bitter pith.)
- One cup fresh raw pecans (Ours come from Cooley Farms a few towns over from us. Truly raw pecans are not shelf-stable and need to be refrigerated or frozen. But they are GOOD and very good for you. Worth the hunt.)
- One log of good-quality goat cheese (or cheese of choice), sliced
- The juice and zest of one large orange
- One-half cup sour cream (We like Kalona Supernatural.)
- One-half cup plain Greek yogurt (We shop local at Windcrest Dairy.)
- One-half teaspoon each: whole mustard seed, whole cumin seed, whole black pepper corns
- A dash or two white balsamic vinegar (I used my special Monadnock white balsamic vinegar, flavored with honey and ginger, but a dash of any good-quality white balsamic would work just fine.)
- Sea salt to taste
- Place all the pickling ingredients in a sturdy two-quart sauce pan with your sliced beets and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer steadily until the beets are tender—about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from heat and cover with a tight lid. Let the beets steep for a couple of hours. Strain and remove all spices and peels. Chill the beet slices until ready to use.
- In a small cast-iron skillet, dry toast the whole spices, then crush with a mortar and pestle and place in a medium-size bowl or large measuring cup.
- Add the orange juice, vinegar and salt. Whisk thoroughly to combine.
- Whisk the sour cream and yogurt together, then whisk this mixture into the orange juice mixture to fully incorporate. Chill until ready to serve.
- Pick a pretty platter and arrange in layers to your liking the beets, fennel, onions, orange segments, goat cheese slices and pecans. Garnish with mint sprigs, if desired.Offer the dressing on the side in a sweet little pitcher. Allow diners to layer and dress as they wish.
Note that the preparation time does not include the cooking time needed for the beets; that takes about 30 minutes total to simmer, at least 2-3 hours to steep and another 2-3 hours to chill. Can be made ahead by a day or even two.
Now that I’ve embraced the beet, they show up everywhere in my cooking, from desserts to casseroles. You can check out my use of roasted beets and some tips on roasting in my post on ground cherries (Ground cherries will be showing up again at the market any time now!).
Beets for a Healthy Breakfast or Snack
Beets are also the perfect smoothie ingredient—full of antioxidants and great for digestion. Delicious Living Magazine published a new twist on smoothies in their July issue—They threw out the big drinking glass and replaced it with a bowl –a satisfying Berry Beet Smoothie bowl designed to aid digestion. I think this is a great idea because many of my friends simply don’t want to “drink” breakfast; they feel it’s just not a meal. So this thick and rich smoothie bowl idea is just what they were looking for. Be sure to check this recipe out. If you are looking for more smoothie bowl ideas, Delicious Living Magazine offers five more recipes that are condition specific. Being healthy never tasted so good.
Conversations with Cooley Farms
Crystal Cooley is quickly becoming a good market friend. We’ve started sharing our stay-well tips and recipes every Saturday. One of the most important facts she brought to my attention was the nutritional value of her family’s raw pecans. Because they are truly raw and not dried to become shelf-stable for large commercial distribution and sale, they contain enzymes that store-bought pecans just don’t have. Their ability to help cleanse the digestive tract is equal to organic apples, Crystal tells me. And, they freeze very well, retaining all their nutrients. So, no reason not to enjoy their rich flavor and tender little crunch. Using my little Bella processor, I ground them into a raw nut butter, sprinkled in a dash of quality sea salt and added that to my morning smoothie. OMG.
Keep dancing to a healthy beet (Okay, last bad pun.) and share your creations!