Monday, December 15, 2008

Are those beets in my closet?

Beet salad with goat cheese, dill and DuChilly hazelnuts

When people who claim they "eat everything" and "hate nothing" are really pushed on the issue, inevitably a few items are dredged out of their past and brought out into the light. Topping the list (if we exclude certain gimmes in the offal category - liver, tongue, sweetbreads - nothing sweet or bread about them) are Brussels sprouts (aka "little green balls of death"), eggplant, lima beans, mushrooms and beets.

When you peek into my closet of old culinary foes, you'll see that bunch of beets staring back at you. No, scratch that - you'll see a can of beets blinking into the light. If we roll the tape, you'll see my nemesis with a can-opener, then a quick tour in the microwave, maybe or maybe not a run-in with salt and pepper and then an unceremonious dump onto an extremely unhappy child's plate.

To my young palate, beets tasted like a very unholy trinity of sugar, dirt and metallic can. While, now, I do eat beets from time to time and love me some borscht, the thought of sitting down to a big plate of beets turns me off. I can't erase the bad memories.

Some vegetables need absolutely nothing more than a pinch of salt to bring out their beauty - think potato, fennel, tomato, asparagus - others do best when you minimize certain aspects (or downright hide them). In the later category I would place kale. Kale can be unbearably bitter and strong sometimes. A quick dunk in some boiling, salted water before sauteing in some flavored oil, with just a pinch of something sweet to contrast with the now-muted bitterness will do wonders. I will use a bit of raisins for the sweetness, a pinch of brown sugar, a tiny drizzle of honey with collards, or get the sweetness from reduced balsamic vinegar.

When I graduated from canned beets to real beets, with green, leafy tops and dirt stuck to the skins I noticed a distinct improvement. Nevertheless I still couldn't get around the cloying sweetness and the taste of dirt in my mouth. Or maybe I was stymied by the color, as the author Laurie Colwin says in her classic book More Home Cooking, "you expect me to eat something magenta?" No, no, that wasn't it. It's that I never had beets prepared correctly. When something is so sweet they make sugar out of it, for god's sake, you need to balance that sweetness to distribute the sensations all over your palate. You know that guy (everyone knows that guy) who keeps prattling on and on and on about his career. A one-tune guy at a cocktail party is not so different from a vegetable that just keeps screaming one thing at you. It's boring, frankly. Jesus, I must still hate beets.

I'm going to give you a recipe that is not a recipe at all. It's more of a palate exercise. Take a medium-sized beet, slap some olive oil on it and some salt and pepper and roast it on a foil-lined sheet (you'll thank me later) at 375 degrees. When you remember it later, about an hour later, slip a knife into it and if it comes out easily the beet is done. Let it cool for a little bit and then don some highly attractive latex gloves or not, if you're content looking like you murdered someone earlier in the day. Slip off the skin from the beet (you can do this under running water if the beet is still really hot.) Dice the beet into small cubes.

Now. Gather the following ingredients... some sea salt, some pepper, a bit of sherry vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, some soft goat cheese, dill and some toasted hazelnuts (I am crazy for DuChilly hazelnuts, which we get locally). Finally, go find some raspberry vinegar.

Here is the experiment. Take the beet cubes and divide them evenly into ten small bowls.

Bowl #1: Plain beets
Bowl #2: Beets + salt
Bowl #3: Beets + pepper
Bowl #4: Beets + sherry vinegar (just a drop or two)
Bowl #5: Beets + olive oil
Bowl #6: Beets + goat cheese
Bowl #7: Beets + dill
Bowl #8: Beets + toasted hazelnuts (chopped)
Bowl #9: Beets + all the ingredients together (but not the raspberry vinegar)
Bowl #10: Beets plus raspberry vinegar

Record all your opinions, paying close attention to what you notice on your palate. Note how the taste of the beet changes a bit when it is combined with different things. When you are done, continue reading.

When I'm teaching students about flavor, I try to demystify things by simplifying them. If you go all crazy mad-scientist on your pot of soup (you know who you are) then it's much harder to isolate what it is that made the flavors really shine or, conversely, what made you chuck the whole thing into the sink in a fit of disgust. Add one ingredient at a time and then taste, taste, taste. This is the only way to educate your palate.

In the preceding experiment, I hope you notice that the nuttiness of the sherry vinegar is a good match with the earthiness of the beets, that the tart tang of the goat cheese and its inherent creaminess smooth the edges of the earthiness so that you can taste the earth but not taste dirt itself. I hope you see that there is a good reason why your raspberry vinegar was deep, deep, deep in the back of your pantry (and should stay there) and how it is not a good match with beets. Too sweet! The beets have sugar going for them, lots of sugar. It's best to tone that down with a little savory (dill), tart (sherry vinegar and/or goat cheese), pepper (spice), hazelnuts (just a touch of bitterness).

My friends who are avid home cooks long to know how chefs know what ingredients go well with other ingredients. They want to know how chefs know how to coax the most flavor out of the foods they are working with. My friend Traca was having a conversation with a chef the other day who said that the essence of excellent cooking begins with knowing your ingredients. Know them inside and out, like you know yourself, like you know your lover, like you know your best friend. What makes them tick? What goes well with their personalities? What makes them sour, bitter, sweet? What makes them make you sleep on the couch? When do you dress them up? When do you just leave them alone?

When you know your ingredients like this, your food will reward you. You just may stay off the damn couch, too.


Jesse said...

Dear readers,

I feel I must weigh in here on them there beets as I feel I can duly assure my place in my sister's conversion to a beet eater.

Becky was visiting in Ithaca where I had the pleasure of performing at the farmer's market in exchange for my picks of the freshest produce around. I picked up some beets and Becky challenged me to make beets because she just didn't like them. It's on.

My recipe:
STEP ONE: Beets roasted in the oven in tinfoil like Becky suggests here in this post.
STEP TWO: peel under cold water and then slice.
STEP THREE: add an absurd amount of butter to a pan and melt.
STEP FOUR: chop up some scallions and burn the living christ out of them
STEP FIVE: add sliced beets and just get it all pushed together with the black charred up scallions and the butter.
STEP SIX: A goodly sprinkling of salt.

According to the analysis by my sister, the bitterness of the burnt scallions must offset the sweet of the beet. Regardless, she declared my dish "dee-lish" and she promised to keep an open mind about this proud root.

Becky, have you ever tried my "mashed beet-potatoes?" They sit on the plate like stake tartare sprinkled with tamari soaked sunflower seeds. Striking... even rude.

(all that beet and I didn't make one drummer joke)

So, sister, give some credit where credit is due or I shall beet you up!


foodperson said...

I happen to love beets and therefore have one quibble with your comments. Sweet with beets is divine--when they're pickled. Yum!

Lara Alexander said...

I love beets (especially homegrown) and am always trying to change the minds of friends who THINK they dont like them. Have you tried them paired with avocado and some ginger infused olive oil? Yum!!
Here is my very dorky ode to beets:


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