Wednesday, October 31
Beauty of the Beets
I love to cook. I love to emerge from the kitchen with a well-balanced and nicely plated meal, of course, but my pleasure in cooking doesn't just come from the "ta da!" moment of serving the finished dish. Like many things in life, it's the process and not the end result that provides the most moments of simple happiness.
For me, those moments come from the uncontrived beauty of the different foods I'm preparing. The colours and textures of the ingredients rival that of any artist's palette. The patterns, shapes, gloss and viscosity of the (literally) raw materials contribute to the final masterpiece but are also appreciated as individual works of art.
Perhaps the best example of this is the humble beet. It's certainly one of the most vibrant examples. It doesn't look all that impressive when you pull a beet from a produce bag, the dull skin a dusty purple-grey. But peel the skin off and slice into the vegetable and it reveals a deep ruby interior and a hint of brilliant juice. Many recipes involving beets recommend wearing gloves to avoid staining your hands. But I don't mind magenta fingers and cutting boards. They can be washed. Meanwhile, the beet juice on my white cutting board is like an abstract painting ready to hang on a wall.
Of course the other thing I love about beets is they are delicious! I didn't like beets when I was younger. The only way I had ever tried them was pickled or boiled and I found them, well, bleh. It wasn't until I tried them roasted that I fell for them, and fell hard. Roasting intensifies the natural sweetness of the beets and gives them a great, slightly chewy texture.
Sometimes I peel the beets and cut them into thick wedges, sometimes into small dice, sometimes sliced into rounds or half-moons.
With wedges or dice, I toss them in a ceramic baking dish (a snug fitting single layer, more or less) and stir in olive oil, salt, pepper, herbs or spices, and sometimes add a good splash of balsamic vinegar or a sprinkle of brown sugar, plus enough water or other liquid (orange juice is nice) to just cover the bottom of the baking dish. I cover the dish tightly with foil and roast, stirring occasionally, until the beets are tender, about an hour depending on the size of the pieces and the oven temperature (anywhere from 350-450°F depending on what else I'm cooking). I remove the foil and finish them uncovered to cook off any liquid and allow them to caramelize a bit. Wedges are lovely as a side dish on their own or mixed in with other vegetables. Diced beets make a for a nice garnish, tumbled over a crescent of roasted squash or a raft of green beans.
Sliced beets are quicker to roast and are delicious straight up or in this beautiful salad. You'll feel like a real artist mixing pigments as you create the salad. When you toss the red cabbage, onion and beets with the dressing, the acids in the vinaigrette react with the flavin in the cabbage to turn it a bright red-pink. Add some green arugula and stark white cheese for contrast, and you've got a real work of art to behold and share.
Serves 6 to 8.
Adapted from Fine Cooking magazine.
This is a vibrant starter or side and the perfect way to add bold colour and tastes to an autumn dinner.
For the beets:
5 or 6 medium-small beets, peeled and sliced 1/4" to 1/2" thick
1 tablespoon olive oil
coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the vinaigrette:
1 tablespoon dijon mustard
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
For the salad:
4 cups thinly sliced red cabbage (from 1/2 large head)
1 medium red onion, halved and thinly sliced
2 to 3 cups baby arugula
crumbled goat cheese
toasted walnuts (optional)
Roast the beets:
Preheat oven to 400°F. Line a large rimmed baking sheet (or two medium) with parchment paper.
Toss the beets, olive oil and a pinch each of salt and pepper to coat. Distribute the beets in a single layer, not touching, on the prepared baking sheets. Roast for 15 minutes, flip the beets over and return to the oven. Continue roasting until tender, about 10-15 minutes longer depending on the thickness of the slices. Let cool on a rack until moderately warm or room temperature. The beets can be roasted a day ahead and refrigerated but bring to room temperature or heat lightly before adding to the salad.
Make the vinaigrette:
Whisk together the mustard, vinegar, lemon juice, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Slowly whisk in the oil.
Make the salad:
Combine the cabbage and onion in a large bowl and set aside. Up to an hour before serving, add the beet wedges to the cabbage and onions and about half of the vinaigrette. Toss gently and admire the colour.
Just before serving, you can toss the arugula with a small amount of dressing -- just enough to give the greens a bit of gloss -- or leave the arugula undressed. Taste the ruby salad and add more vinaigrette or salt if needed.
Mound the ruby salad on plates and surround with some arugula leaves (alternatively, you can distribute dressed arugula on the plates first and top with the ruby salad). Finish by sprinkling crumbled goat cheese and walnuts, if using, over top. Serve immediately.