I have a confession. There is one vegetable that I have never in my conscious memory cooked nor consumed. I’m not sure why this is–psychological? Emotional? Practical? Well, wanna know what the mystery vegetable is? If the title of this post didn’t give it away, here’s a hint:
That’s right, friends. I’ve never cooked nor eaten a beet. I have no idea what to do with them. I know that their juice is used as a natural red dye in some foods or juices and even clothing, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge. So when I inherited a bagful of ’em from Alex’s mother last weekend, I decided it was as good a time as any to try to harness the full culinary prowess of these beautiful root vegetables. I decided to start with a beet and potato salad recipe (Salade a la d’Argenson) from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Here’s the recipe I followed:
- 2 cups warm boiled potatoes, peeled and diced (I used 5 small new potatoes and didn’t feel much like peeling them)
- 2 cups diced cooked beets (see note below)
- 4 tablespoons minced shallots
- 3/4 cup vinaigrette (basic red wine vinaigrette: 2 T red wine vinegar, 6 T olive oil, pinch of salt and pepper, 1/4 t ground mustard)
*Note on cooking beets: I might be beeting a dead horse now, but having never cooked a beet, I couldn’t just begin assembling the salad without the cooked beets. How do you cook a beet?? I consulted Rene Verdon’s French Cooking for the American Table which gave me this enlightening introduction to the beet:
“Beets are an essential ingredient of three favorite American dishes–the New England boiled dinner, “red flannel” hash, and sweet-sour Harvard beets.” Sounds super appealing right? Especially that red flannel hash (gag).
He continues, “Beets are boiled or baked. […] baked beets was a favorite dish of the colonial Americans. They cooked them slowly in the brick oven tunneled into the side of the early American fireplace, slipped off their skins, and served them whole with salt, pepper, melted butter, and a touch of apple vinegar to cross swords with their natural sweetness. […] the French use fancy truffle cutters to stamp out little stars, diamonds, and other shapes from thin beet slices.”
Such a rich history does give these brilliant fuschia-fleshed veggies something to blush about, don’t you think? Further, according to Wikipedia, beets have been around for a long, long time, used variously to treat fever, constipation, digestive ailments, and even as an aphrodisiac!
I digress. It turns out that cooking beets is similar to boiling potatoes, except they must be boiled for a longer period of time. Monsieur Verdon instructed me to chop off the leaves of each beet, leaving about an inch of stem, then give them a good wash and scrub, being careful not to pierce the skin.
Don’t those long tap roots make the beets look like brown mice? Oh, and those beet greens went to the compost this time, but Alex’s mom assures me they taste delicious when prepared like spinach or chard.
Since I had to boil the potatoes anyway, I decided to put everybody together in the same pot, removing the potatoes when they were fork-tender and letting the beets go for a bit longer. Despite my care to not pierce the skin while scrubbing them, the beets leaked their fluorescent pink blood into the pot. Verdon recommends adding a couple tablespoons of vinegar to your boiling pot to prevent an undesirable Cat in the Hat Comes Back pink ring.
Once they were done, I “shocked” the beets by putting them in a bowl of ice water. After they cooled for a couple minutes I took them out and peeled them with a vegetable peeler, getting beet juice all over my hands. I diced the potatoes and beets into bite-size pieces and tossed them together with the shallots and vinaigrette. Julia Child recommends chilling them now for 12-24 hours before assembling the whole salad–a note I failed to read prior to beginning this production, resulting in a side-less dinner one evening this week.
Nevertheless, about 30 hours later, I finished assembling the salad. To do this, I had to make a batch of mayonnaise with green herbs. Mme Child includes a recipe in her sauces chapter, but I just used store-bought mayonnaise and chopped up a handful of basil and parsley to mix in. She also recommends adding other vegetables such as carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower, as well as walnuts or olives to garnish. Folding everything together, I got something like this:
A beautifully pink, creamy-looking salad. It basically tasted like potato salad with slightly sweet bonus burst from the beets. I think you could definitely adapt the recipe to include whatever you usually put in your potato salad: celery, bacon pieces, etc. You could also get snazzy with your cold salad moulds and make something more impressive looking like this (same recipe, different presentation). And isn’t the color fantastic?!? Alex was a little confused by the color, saying that it made his brain tell him to expect “strawberry potatoes,” and I suppose if you were to add strawberry milk to boiled potatoes, you might achieve a similar visual effect (though offensively worse-flavored, I’m sure). The lovely pink hue would make this dish perfect for a bridal shower, or baby shower if the mother-to-be was expecting a girl, or even in a meal to support breast-cancer awareness and research.
All in all, I’m impressed with the beet so far, and I’m looking forward to trying some more recipes. But unless someone leaves a comment describing “red flannel” hash to me, I may hold off on that one for now. In the meantime, what are your favorite beet recipes? I’d love to hear about ’em; maybe I’ll even write a post devoted to my trials with reader-contributed beet recipes. I’ll probably be making something with beets at least once a week for the next couple of weeks. But hey, if you’re not a beet fan, tell us instead about a food that was not on your radar screen for a while but you eventually learned to love (or that you learned you hated…) No need to feel shy Don’t beet around the bush…leave a comment!