For the love of beets

For the love of beets

4 minute read

I grew up in a mostly beetless family. My maternal grandmother Lalla, a Romanian Jew, made borscht for many Friday lunches at her home in Milan, but truth be told, I never ate it: the bits of boiled beef floating in the soup put me off. My mom, likely searching for some of the flavors of her childhood, sometimes bought what she dubbed “Russian salad” from a Romanian deli in Montreal: tiny multi-colored cubes of carrot, beet, peas, potato, and hard-boiled egg bound with mayonnaise—definitely not something I liked as a child. Other than these two underwhelming introductions to beet, my family’s meals were beetless.

lesson imageAnd then I moved out, started shopping at famer’s markets (my favorite was the Atwater Market near my university-days condo in Montreal), and got to know the pleasures of cooking with beets.

Selecting and storing beets

I discovered that beets are so much more than the flaccid tasting canned pink orbs found at the supermarket, or a soggy side dish when the weather offers few other vegetables. Beets are sweet, complex, versatile, and abundant throughout the year, but they are at their best right about now, in late summer, with gorgeous greens and snappy stems that should never be discarded. Which brings me to this important fact: when you buy beets, buy them in a bunch, with their leaves and stems attached, and you’ll be rewarded with three ingredients, not just one, to play with in the kitchen. At their simplest, the stems are delicious boiled and dressed with lemon juice, olive oil, and a hint of chili flakes; the greens can be used much like chard or spinach.
I prefer pink beets to golden ones, though I like to mix it up and buy both for a variety of colors and flavors; the pink ones usually have a stronger taste. When I bring beets home, I enclose the overhanging leaves in a long produce bag so they don’t wilt as they wait their turn to be cooked. Wrapped thusly, they will keep for about a week if your refrigerator is a good one, but they are best cooked within a day or two for the brightest flavor.

Cleaning beets

Cleaning beets is easy enough: just scrub well and wash before roasting. I am not a fan of boiled beets: the flavor and color get washed out in the process, so to me a properly cooked beet is a roasted beet. Raw beets can be nice if they are of pristine quality and impeccable freshness. In fact, the best beet I ever tasted was a raw beet, shaved translucently thin and served with the most perfect tiny lettuces and shaved carrots by the Michelin-starred chef at La Bandiera, a family-owned restaurant in Abruzzo.
Cleaning beet leaves and stems is more of an undertaking because so much grit hides in the nooks and crannies; a vegetable brush and several changes of water will do the trick.

Cooking beets

Now that I’ve rhapsodized about beets, I want to share an unusual recipe for my friend Grazina’s cold beet soup. She brought us a container of this shockingly pink soup a few years ago, on a particularly hot day. It looked like nothing I had ever eaten before, and at first my husband and I could not quite figure out what was in it, other than beets and some sort of dairy.
This soup, known in Grazina’s Lithuanian family as “Pink Soup,” is a chilled borscht of sorts, yet it tastes nothing like the borscht I grew up avoiding: it is brightly flavored, herbal, and so refreshing. While the ingredient list looks daunting, the actual process is quick and easy: roast some beets; boil some eggs and beet greens (though Grazina uses spinach, and you can too); crush scallions with dill and salt; toss all of the above with buttermilk, sour cream, lemon juice, cucumbers; and enjoy the next day, after the flavors have had a chance to mingle and develop fully.

Let me know if you try the soup, but don't wait too long: summer is nearly over! Happy cooking,


Chilled Summer Beet and Buttermilk Soup

lesson imageServes 4
For the beets:
225 grams 8 ounces) fresh beets
1 teaspoon sea salt
For the soup:
2 large eggs
3 packed cups finely chopped fresh beet greens or spinach
3 scallions, white and green parts, very thinly sliced
¼ cup fresh dill leaves, coarsely chopped
1 and ½ teaspoons salt
2 Kirby cucumbers, peeled and cut into ¼-inch (0.6-centimeter) dice
10 milliliters (2 teaspoons) lemon juice, plus extra to taste
500 milliliters (2 cups) buttermilk
190 milliliters (¾ cup) light sour cream

  1. Make the beets: Preheat the oven to 325°F convection or 350°F regular.
  2. Scrub the beets thoroughly and wash well. Place the beets on a sheet of aluminum foil, season with the salt, and wrap well to enclose.
  3. Place the foil package on a baking sheet and roast in the preheated oven until tender when pierced with a knife, about 2 hours. Larger beets may take longer. Cool to room temperature, then rub with a paper towel to remove the peel. Cut into ¼-inch (0.6-centimeter) dice.
  4. Make the soup: Bring 2 quarts (2 liters) of water to a boil. Gently drop in the eggs and boil for 8 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon (reserve the boiling water) and place the cooked eggs under cool running water. Shell and cut into ¼-inch (0.6-centimeter) dice.
  5. Return the water to a boil. Add the beet greens or spinach and boil 3 minutes, or until tender and silky. Drain and rinse under cool water to stop the cooking. Squeeze dry gently. Chop finely and set aside.
  6. In a mortar, place the scallions, dill, and salt. Crush with a pestle until the scallions and dill release their juice; they will still be chunky, not pasty.
  7. Place the scallion mixture in a large container. Add the cucumbers, lemon juice, buttermilk, sour cream, cooked beet greens, roasted beets, and hard-boiled eggs. Mix well. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed, then cover and chill overnight.
  8. Adjust the seasoning if needed and serve very cold. The flavor should be slightly tart and sweet, and quite savory; if the soup tastes flat, add a drop more lemon juice and some salt until the flavors brighten.

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