Saturday, November 19, 2011

Roasted Golden Beet Salad and the History of Beets

It's not often I find golden beets in any of the markets I frequent (and I often shop in 2-4 each week), so when I  came across fresh organic golden beets recently I snapped them up.  They are more delicate in flavor than their red cousins, but equally delicious.  Whether golden or traditional ruby red beets, they make for great salads and side dishes. 

Golden beets on the left, watercress with
goat cheese and toasted walnuts center,
ruby red beets on the right.
Beets are native to the Mediterranean and although the leaves (chard) have been eaten since before written history, the beet root was generally used only medicinally in ancient times.  (Even now we know that beets are perhaps some of the worlds healthiest foods, and thankfully they taste wonderful too!)

In the 2nd and 3rd centuries the Roman epicures first gave recipes for cooking the root of Beta vulgaris (beetroots), some claiming it was better food than cabbage.  The next known record about beet root was among some 14th-century English recipes, revealing its use in England.

The red beet with a turnip-like root was first described as a food plant in Germany in 1558 and was a rarity at that time in northern Europe. The improved beet was called "Roman beet" in the 16th century in northern Europe and France, indicating its introduction from Italy.

All through the 17th and 18th centuries very few kinds of garden beets were known and they remained unimportant. Up to about 1800 only two kinds, Red and Long Red, were listed by English seedsmen. Popularity on the Continent grew faster than in the British Isles.

In the United States in 1806 only one variety-Red-was listed in a leading catalogue, but in 1828 four kinds were listed. The Bassano variety, still grown today, was common in Italy more than a hundred years ago. The Flat Egyptian, an American production, also cultivated today, was first grown around Boston about 1869. Other varieties grown in America are of more recent introduction.

Colors of garden-beet varieties may range all the way from extremely dark purplish red to bright vermilion and to white. The roots of some varieties, when cut transversely, show distinct light and dark rings, even white alternating with red or purple, like a target.  These are quite a rare find and if you see them at the market do snatch them up. 

I had no idea that some folks have such a negative response when beets are mentioned.  As you may know, I even love pickling them and do so each and every spring. This may be related to the fact the canned beets often have a harsh flavor and when children are exposed to them they have a lasting negative memory.  Judy Sobeloff has an excellent blog entry on beets and peoples visceral response to them, if you'd care to read more and pick up a few more good beet recipes as well.  But if you haven't had fresh roasted beets, do give them a try.  You'll find them subtle, complex and wonderful when properly prepared.

Roasting Beets:   Roasting beets brings out their flavor.  Select beets as equal in size as possible, looking for the small to mid-sized beets which will roast more quickly and evenly.  Scrub the beets with a brush and remove the green tops (saving those for another meal) and discard the root bottom.  Place in a covered casserole or inside a foil packet and drizzle with olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. Use more olive oil if you are making a salad as you can use the infused oil for this purpose.  Roast in a 350F oven for 45 minutes to 1 1/4 hours, until tender when pierced with a knife.  Remove from the oven and let cool uncovered.  I typically perform the next step using latex gloves, as the beets will stain your hands (and anything else they come in contact with.)  Under lightly running water, use your figures to peel off the beet skins and use a pairing knife to remove any hard ends remaining.  The beets will peel easily, much like fresh peaches after they are blanched.  Set the beets aside covered until ready for use, reserving the beet-infused oil for your salad dressing.

Roasted Beet, Watercress, Goat Cheese and Toasted Walnut Salad
To show off these rare golden beets, I featured them by serving them as the first course, garnished with watercress, goat cheese and toasted walnuts. They pair well with the peppery watercress and the salty goat cheese.  I made a dressing using the beet-infused oil and some apple cider vinegar. With a sprinkle of salt and a fresh grind of course pepper, this makes for a lovely fall/winter salad.

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