Beets taste like sweet dirt, and I mean that as the highest compliment. Mmm…dirt. No, I haven’t developed a case of pica. I just love the beet’s incredible sugary earthiness, and how you know you’re eating something that used to be in the ground when you take a bite. They’re like geodes, innocuous rocks in the earth that when cracked open reveal a hidden treasure that you are the first to witness. And they’re more than just a pretty face: beets are grown for the production of sugar and vodka, and are also used as a de-icing product as well as cattle feed. In the UK, there are plans to use surplus sugar beets as biofuel. Their cultivation stretches back thousands of years.
As a kid, my limited experience with beets came in the form of the pickled slices from a can that you could find in only the finest all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants the suburbs had to offer. They were flavorless discs of slightly vinegar-y matter—not exactly the kind of thing that would set your heart aflame. You may remember that in previous posts I’ve talked about my great-grandmother Nettie and the wonderful culinary legacy she left behind. In direct contrast, my own grandmother Lois was (and still is, but I am safe in writing this because she doesn’t trust computers) a notoriously bad cook. Among the culinary horrors to be had at Lois’s were chalky, dry livers that had been cooked to within an inch of their lives, canned okra packed in slime, and canned pickled beets. You can forgive me for not knowing from an early age what these little gems really had to offer.
The realization came to me slowly, over a series of kitchen experiments involving the attempt during my high school days to dye a friend’s hair pink using pureed beets (it didn’t work,) and later branching out into attempts to actually eat the fresh stuff, greens and all. I eventually discovered such pleasures as beet and wild rice salad with fresh parsley and lemon vinaigrette, beet greens simmered in garlic, white wine, and butter, and the most magical classic combination of all: beets and goat’s cheese. From then on, I was hooked on sweet dirt.
There are a few particularly tasty-looking beet-based recipes in blog-land right now, including this beet and greens salad with goat cheese and balsamic vinaigrette from Three Many Cooks, and these raw vegan beet ravioli stacks with cashew ricotta from Cake Walk.
When I first moved to England I quickly fell in love with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (he is a major threat to my future marriage.) On one of his River Cottage programs, he made a chilled beetroot (as it is commonly called here) soup that has become a standard in my repertoire. I serve it hot in the winter and chilled in the summer, and have convinced my entire in-law family of beet-haters that these scarlet roots are actually a wonderful thing, just on the basis of this soup.
adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recipe
For the tomato sauce:
8-10 fresh tomatoes sliced in half, or enough to fit snugly in one layer in the bottom of your baking dish
2 cloves of garlic
salt and pepper
For the soup:
1 large white onion, roughly chopped
6 medium sized beets, peeled and chopped
1 litre/ 4 cups beef stock
Salt and pepper
First, make the tomato sauce. Cut the tomatoes in half and arrange skin side down in a single layer in a baking dish. Finely chop the garlic and sprinkle over the tomatoes, and add a good healthy glug of olive oil and plenty of salt and pepper. Put in the oven on a low heat—150C/300F for about 45 minutes, until the tomatoes are soft and turning a little brown at the edges. Dump the whole contents of the dish into the blender and puree, then pass through a sieve to strain out the chunky bits.
To make the soup, sweat the onion and beets for a few minutes in olive oil and then add the beef stock. Let it come to a boil and then simmer, covered, for about 20 minutes, until the beets are cooked through. Add the tomato sauce and then put everything back in the blender (or use a stick blender if you prefer) to make a smooth soup. You can add a little water at this stage if the consistency is too thick. Add salt and pepper to taste, and top with crumbled goat or feta cheese to serve.