Local chefs do toothsome things with fresh beets

Fresh beets can be striking hues, straight from the farm.
Fresh beets can be striking hues, straight from the farm. (Tony Fitts)
Posted: August 12, 2010

If you were served canned beets as a child and not permitted to leave the table until they were all gone, you may not be so thrilled to learn that we're now in the thick of beet season.

But take heart, stalwart members of the Clean Plate Club: Fresh beets, if you haven't had the fortitude to try them yet, bear little resemblance to the canned stuff.

"I never liked beets until I ate them in a restaurant and they were fresh," said Charles "Chip" Roman, who grew up in Fishtown suffering from canned beet syndrome but nonetheless became a respected chef.

Roman recalls tasting fresh beets for the first time when he worked at Vetri. Now he puts them to work in dishes at Blackfish, his much-lauded Conshohocken restaurant where the menus change often.

Throughout the city and suburbs, chefs in tune with the seasons are serving beets in imaginative ways. In the course of a week, we found a gossamer fan of beet carpaccio beneath grilled duck legs at Zinc Bistro on South 11th Street; a twirly nest of spun beet strings under the white fish Ssam wraps at Doma on Callowhill; and a luscious borscht with white peaches and a tingly touch of cayenne spice at Cafe Estelle in Northern Liberties. Beet juice is even being touted as the perfect companion to vodka.

At Blackfish, Roman replaces quince with beets to make a lovely beet membrillo. In his borscht, he uses cranberry juice in place of stock and adds a splash of Banyuls red wine vinegar and a dollop of creme fraiche, letting the acidity of the cranberry juice offset the sweetness of the beets.

For salads, beets can be roasted and then sliced, or fresh raw beets can be shredded, slawlike, with a mandoline or box grater and tossed with walnut oil or white balsamic vinegar.

But beware, shredding will leave you red-handed.

"When you work with fresh beets, everything gets red," says Olivier Desaintmartin, the chef/owner at Zinc Bistro. "The towels are red, the kitchen sink is red, the counter is red."

Scrubbing your hands and your cutting board with coarse salt will remove much of the color.

Another way to counter the red effect, Desaintmartin suggests, is to buy beets peeled and packed in plastic. Just open, rinse and slice. Top with a dressing of mustard, shallots, oil, and fresh parsley.

Desaintmartin likes sauteed beets with fish: Blanch the beets first, then put in a pan with butter, salt, and pepper and cook until they are caramelized. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.

As a native Frenchman, Desaintmartin is entitled to call his cold beet soup vichyssoise.

To serve four, the chef says, start with half a chopped Spanish onion; two chopped leeks; two beets; two potatoes; and a half quart of chicken stock.

Saute the leeks and onion briefly. Peel and rough-chop the beets and potatoes. Put all the ingredients in the stock, add salt, and cook over a low flame for about 45 minutes, or until the potatoes and beets are fork-tender.

Then puree with an immersion blender. The soup should have a creamy consistency - creamier than gazpacho, Desaintmartin says. Add a bit of water or two percent milk and puree again if it is too thick. Season with white pepper and lace with creme fraiche and a sprinkle of curry or caraway seeds.

Chef Marshall Green at Cafe Estelle says he ate mountains of beets during his childhood summers in, of all places, Plymouth Meeting.

"We lived in a rental house on a corn farm and had a 600-square-foot garden," says Green. "I ate so many beets I peed red all summer long."

He makes borscht using vegetable stock, roasted beets, a bit of fresh peach and a dash of cayenne pepper, topped with dill sour cream and a slice of peach.

Green prefers the bull's blood variety of beets from Lancaster Farm Fresh for their deep color and intense sugary taste.

In fact, all the chefs we spoke to said red beets are superior in flavor to the yellow, gold, or candy-striped varieties.

Green uses roasted beets in omelets, and on pizzas with goat cheese, pickled red onion, and house-made guanciale.

To roast beets, Green says, start by scrubbing the beets, removing the greens but leaving the stem and root intact.

Then put them in an oven-safe dish with about a half-inch of water, salt, and a bit of olive oil. Cover with aluminum foil and cook at 450 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour.

When cool, the skins should slip off easily. At that point the beets can be used in the recipe of your choice or pickled in vinegar to keep in the refrigerator for up to five days.

If pickling is your choice, slice six roasted beets into wedges and set aside. Combine two cups of white vinegar, a half cup of sugar, and a tablespoon of salt and bring that to a boil. Pour the boiling liquid over the beets and put in a lidded glass jar. If necessary, add water so that the beets are fully covered in liquid. Cool and refrigerate for up to a month. (Proper canning will keep them longer, of course.)

Desaintmartin, who describes himself as a root vegetable fan, says beets are inexpensive, delicious, and sweet.

"And they make a great, great dish. To me, when you taste beets, you taste the earth," Desaintmartin says, "and that's what cooking is all about."

Quick-Roasted Beet Slices

Makes 2 servings (can be doubled)

4 or 5 small or 3 medium beets, trimmed, scrubbed (but not peeled) and sliced very thinly crosswise (about 1/8 inch)

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon coarsely chopped fresh thyme

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1. Preheat oven to 475 degrees. Line a large (18-by-13-by-1-inch) heavy-duty rimmed sheet pan with parchment paper.

2. Put the beet slices in a mixing bowl and toss thoroughly with the olive oil, thyme, and salt. The slices should be of uniform width so they all cook evenly. Arrange the slices, evenly spaced, on the sheet pan. It's OK if the sides touch.

3. Roast for 16 to 18 minutes, until the beets are tender, shrunken, wrinkled, and glistening. The smallest slices may be black around the edges but they will still be delicious. Cool before serving. 

- From Fast, Fresh and Green (Chronicle Books, 2010) by Susie Middleton. 

Per serving: 113 calories, 2 grams protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams sugar, 7 grams fat, no cholesterol, 578 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.

Golden Hummus

Makes 4 servings

1 large golden beet, baked, peeled, and sliced

1 15-ounce can of garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed

2 tablespoons unsweetened plain yogurt

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon tahini

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1. In a food processor, combine the beet and the garbanzo beans.

2. Process until smooth. Add the yogurt, lemon juice, tahini, and cumin.

3. Process until smooth and serve with toasted pita triangles.

- From Melissa's Everyday Cooking With Organic Produce (Wiley Books, 2010) by Cathy Thomas

Per serving: 138 calories, 7 grams protein, 20 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 4 grams fat, 1 milligram cholesterol, 347 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.

Grilled Broccoli and Beets With Lentils

Makes 6 servings

11/2 pounds small, uncooked beets (a mix of purple and golden is preferred)

4 small sprigs of fresh rosemary

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (divided use)

Juice of 1 1/2 lemons

3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed to a paste

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

1/2 pound French green lentils

1 pound purple broccolini (tenderstem broccoli)

1. Preheat oven to 475 degrees.

2. Trim the shoots of the beets to within a half inch of the top, but leave the whiskery tail of the beet intact. Scrub the beets and place them in a large bowl.

3. Pull off half the rosemary needles and scatter these and the rosemary twigs over the beets. Toss with 4 tablespoons of olive oil, the juice of one lemon, the garlic, salt, and pepper.

4. Line a flat, narrow pan with parchment and lay the beets on the pan. Roast at 475 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes, turning them halfway through. When done, the skins of the beets should be puffy and the insides fork-tender. Remove pan from oven and let stand about 10 minutes.

5. Meanwhile, bring a large pan of water to boil. Add the lentils and cook for 20-25 minutes until tender, then drain them into a sieve. Set aside.

6. Bring another pan of water to a boil, add the broccolini and cook for three minutes. Drain and leave for a few minutes for the surface moisture to evaporate.

7. Heat a ridged grill pan over medium heat. Toss the broccolini in a large bowl with two tablespoons of oil plus salt and pepper to taste. Grill the broccolini in two or three batches for 2 to 3 minutes on each side, until golden.

8. Trim the top and bottom of the roasted beets and cut into quarters or slice into wedges. Place them in a large, shallow serving dish and scatter the cooked lentils on top. Top with another 4 tablespoons of oil, the remaining lemon juice, a bit more salt and pepper, and toss gently. Mix in the broccolini. Serve at room temperature.

- From Gorgeous Vegetables by Annie Bell (Kyle Books 2009) 

Per serving: 197 calories, 4 grams protein, 16 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams sugar, 14 grams fat, no cholesterol, 114 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.

Chilled Spicy Summer Beet Soup With Peaches and Dill Cream

Makes 1/2 gallon or 8 1-cup servings

2 to 3 large beets

1 quart vegetable stock

1 cup orange juice

2 ripe peaches (including 1 for garnish)

2 tablespoons Verjus rouge or red wine vinegar

Pinch cayenne

For the garnish:

2 tablespoons sour cream

1 1/2 teaspoons heavy cream

2 1/2 sprigs roughly chopped dill

1/2 teaspoon lemon juice

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Wash and scrub beets. Place in a roasting pan with stock and orange juice. Cover with aluminum foil, place in oven. Roast until beets are fork tender, about 1 hour depending on size.

2. Remove beets from pan, allow to cool slightly. Using a kitchen towel, rub the skin from the beets. Roughly chop the beets, place in a 4-quart pot along with roasting liquid, bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer until reduced by a quarter in volume.

3. Peel and roughly chop one peach. Remove soup from heat and add the chopped peach. Using a hand blender or bar blender puree soup until smooth, season with salt and pepper, add Verjus, add cayenne in small increments until you have achieved desired heat. (Rule of thumb is enough cayenne to irritate the back of your throat without being spicy.) Allow soup to cool and taste to adjust seasoning; it will taste different once cool.

4. For the garnish, add all ingredients to a bowl and whisk to combine. Serve with slices of the remaining fresh peach and a dollop of dill cream.

- From chef Marshall Green at Cafe Estelle 

Per serving: 46 calories, 1 gram protein, 8 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 1 gram fat, 3 milligrams cholesterol, 491 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.

Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or dmarder@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/diannamarder

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