Thursday, May 20, 2010
Beets, The Back Story
Last night's picnic is today's rain. But I'd like to think of rain as the back story of spring. Behind all the blooms of cherries and scents of lilac are gray days of pressed clouds. Without days like today, our green would not be as vibrant. Thus is true for the beet or beetroot (to hopefully broaden our audience here) who sit long under ground and then rise to be unearthed in muted tones and once roasted--bleed all over your plate and fingers. The phoenixed root vegetable.
Beta vulgaris, the common beet, has an interesting history or back story as I like to imagine it. The first recorded history found beets along the Mediterranean in Europe and Northern Africa. And like most food, it spread thanks to violence, riots and a rise in popularity during war when roads were shut and people had to eat what grew in the ground--wild in their backyard. Yes, even our cozy chestnut folks, we can give thanks to Alexander's army storing them and throwing out their shells as a trail to mark their conquests. The beet, as you might imagine, have a far less glamorous past or story.
The Romans were the first to eat the actual root. Previously, just the greens were eaten by the Greeks and used for medicinal purposes--digestive benefits mostly. Conquering Europe was just part of the Romans claim to fame really as much as it was spreading the notion that the common beet root was edible. But perhaps my favorite back story lies in a wanna be Roman, Napoleon, who opened a school directly for the study and uses of beets--mainly for its sugar. And as you might have guessed it, the Napoleonic Wars helped for beet notoriety when sugar cane was no longer being shipped to France via England, something needed to be done.
Yet some could argue that beets have another history, quieter and with even less pomp. The common beet grew in monasteries and in peasant farms all across Europe and thrived in sandy soiled Poland where is grew wild. Borscht has kept Poles and Russian warm and fed since the 14th century. Somehow I see the beet living more in the flat fields of Poland then the gardens of Babylon.
Regardless of which back story you want to believe, beets certainly leave an impression even if it is the day after--as my plate above shows. Their modest shy appearance somewhat bulbous-ugly become poppy-pretty on a plate. Please don't limit your love for beets as a mere winter vegetable roasted in a pot pie. Think winter's white is summer's bloomed red. So in honor of the Romans who weren't too proud to eat the bulbs, here's a salad maybe even Napoleon would have eaten somewhere taking a break from conquering half of Europe. Enjoy.
Roasted Beets & Orange Caprese
6 beets, washed, roasted & sliced 1/4"-thick
2 oranges, supreme
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, sliced 1/4"-thick
3 tablespoons fresh mint, chiffonade
Salt, to taste
Olive oil, drizzled
Balsamic Vinaigrette, drizzled
1 tablespoon orange zest
1. Wash and trim beet greens. Wrap in foil, individually, and roast in the oven at 400 for one hour.
2. Let beets cool for ten minutes, then peel and slice them. Reserve.
3. Supreme an orange is really just cutting the peel and pith with a knife and then segmenting each section.
4. Chiffonade the mint, here's to pay homage to Napoleon. Chiffonade simple means ribbons. Remove the mint leaves from stem. Lay each leaf on top of one another, roll like a cigar and then with an knife or scissors, cut into thin ribbon-like pieces.
5. Arrange on a plate: first beet slice, orange supreme, mint.
6. This also looks good as a tower, as my friend-chef Benjamin Freemole, who will soon be famous (trust me), tells me, "the higher the tower, the more expensive it will look."
7. Sprinkle with a bit of salt, drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette and end with a garnish of orange zest.