Making Peace with Beets
I seem to have an issue with beets. In theory, I like them. I’ve been known to order the ubiquitous “roasted beets with goat cheese” salad in restaurants. I even grow them in my own sorry garden. But somehow, they accumulate. The thought of peeling them, staining my fingers, the sink, the butcher block, always deters me from making them. Planning a dinner party last week, I rummaged through my refrigerator’s produce drawer for inspiration only to find three lovely bunches from my farm share, ignored and untouched. That salad crossed my mind…but I was planning to serve sauteed broccoli rabe and salsa verde to accompany roasted halibut already, and—well, I wanted to create something new.
Inventing recipes is a tricky business, especially when you’re hoping to serve the results to guests and don’t have a back-up plan. But it’s also one of the great joys of becoming a cook: As you learn more about technique and flavor, you develop intuition—the thing that lets you read a recipe and know that you’d like it better with the addition of thyme, or not quite so much garlic. Or that you could achieve the same results (or, more importantly, results that will satisfy you) through a shortcut or two. This isn’t to say that all recipes should be mucked about with; the New York Times ran a sniffy (and very funny) article a few years ago about the horrors of interpretation and revision of professionally-developed recipes by amateur cooks, as evidenced by readers’ comments on food websites. Comments like, “I didn’t have any fresh garlic so I just substituted garlic salt and mayonnaise, and my pesto turned out great!” That kind of thing.
Since I wanted a first course, but not a salad, I thought of soup. I did check a couple of cookbooks, but found nothing. Beet plus soup always seems to equal borscht, but I didn’t want to make borscht. (Truthfully, and this is embarrassing, I didn’t want to make it because I’ve actually never eaten it—ridiculous in any case, and certainly for someone with a Russian last name.) I knew I wanted a light puree. It had to be vegetarian, to suit my dinner guests. I decided to forge ahead on my own, assuming that the worst that would happen would be that I’d have a pot of something that I would feed to my chickens instead of my friends.
Avowed beet lovers always say that roasting is the ticket: to peel a roasted beet is less messy than the same process with a raw one, they swear. I washed and trimmed two or three pounds of beets, and threw them into a roasting pan with a head of garlic, figuring that roasted garlic makes almost everything taste better. By evening, I had a sweet and tangy, bright ruby puree which I served in small bowls, piping hot. A dollop of creme fraiche and a drizzle of balsamic made it look more complicated than it was, and everyone drained their bowls. This is definitely a first course soup—not a hearty main course. But it may just have cured my beet-avoidance problem. I might even try my hand at borscht.
Beet Soup with Roasted Garlic
Serves 6 as a first course
2 1/2 - 3 pounds of beets, well scrubbed and trimmed of their greens
1 head of garlic—no need to peel
7 cups vegetable stock (I had homemade in the fridge; the boxed stuff would be fine.)
2-3 T balsamic vinegar, plus a bit more for serving
salt and pepper
extra virgin olive oil
creme fraiche or sour cream for serving
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Place the beets and garlic in a roasting pan and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil—about a tablespoon, maybe two, should do it.
Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and place in the oven for around 45 minutes, or until you can easily pierce the beets with a fork.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
Wearing gloves if you’re fastidious, remove the charred skins from the beets. Small bits may still cling; that’s ok. Get off as much as you can.
Pop the roasted garlic cloves from their skins.
Put the beets and garlic into a deep saucepan and add the stock. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat so that the liquid simmers. Simmer uncovered for 45 minutes or until the beets are really, really tender.
Remove the beets from the liquid and puree in a food processor or blender. Return the puree to the stock and stir to combine. Add 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar (or more to taste) as well as salt and pepper to taste.
(For a more refined, less rustic soup, run the entire puree through a chinois—a fine mesh conical strainer—or a food mill. This will remove any stray bits of skin still remaining.)
Serve hot, with a teaspoon or so of creme fraiche on top of the serving, and a tiny drizzle of balsamic over that.
(This is also quite good served cold the next day.) —Paige Orloff