Saturday, February 04, 2012

Starters: Roasted Beets with Blue Cheese, Hazelnuts, and Sour Cream Dressing

Poor beets. They are much maligned, that despised vegetable of childhood. So much abuse leveled at them: they’re old people food, they taste like dirt, they’re spongy, they’re just boring.

I won’t defend canned beets. In my opinion canned beets deserve the criticism they receive. But fresh beets are quite different. It’s like in high school when you meet your archenemy’s older sibling and discover that, while your archenemy is a jerk, his or her sibling is actually a nice person and you get along really well with them. It makes you wonder if they have the same parents, or if one of them was adopted.

I spent years avoiding beets. I breezed past them on salad bars without a second look. They were those jerky canned beets. No way. Then one evening, at a very nice restaurant, I met cubed roasted golden beets. They were actually a garnish on something or other, and I decided to try them.

I have a theory about food. If there’s something I think I don’t like, or haven’t had an opportunity to taste (let’s be honest: often people say, “I don’t like X,” when what they mean is, “I’ve never had X,” or, “I had X that someone made at a party once and it tasted bad,” or, “I’m not sure how to prepare X, so I never have”), I make a point of trying it at a really good restaurant. My thinking is that if a good restaurant can’t make a disliked or feared ingredient taste good, we’re probably just not meant to be. This method has served me well. I ate cream of mushroom soup and developed an appreciation for mushrooms, and tried oysters on the half shell and came to see how good they can be, among other things.

So here I was, in a quite nice restaurant, with roasted cubed yellow beets before me. They were a world away from those nasty canned beets of my childhood (which were served, I recall, with instant mashed potatoes, and a hamburger patty with American cheese on it—no bun, just a patty with cheese. All of which could possibly—although not completely—account for my aversion to beets). So I tasted these and was immediately smitten.

I started experimenting with fresh beets, and found a new friend. I like them roasted with just a little olive oil, and then cubed, and possibly sautéed in a touch more oil, seasoned with salt and pepper.

But one day, I started musing. This is something else I do. I muse. An ingredient will pop into my head—beets, polenta, halibut—and I’ll start turning over things to do with it. I’ll start running through other ingredients that might go with the one. It’s almost like a slot machine—the potential pairing ingredients will roll past (not quite as quickly as a slot machine, of course) and then all of a sudden, it’ll be a *chunk*chunk*chunk* and a combination will present itself. Sometimes I’ll keep one and discard the other two and start the process over. Sometimes all three or four will strike me as a winner. Then I start experimenting.

This is how this beet concoction came to be. I suppose it’s technically a salad. Something in my head said, “Roasted beets. Blue cheese. Hazelnuts. Sour cream. Dijon mustard. White wine vinegar.” So I tried it. I roasted and cubed the beets, combined sour cream, Dijon mustard and white wine vinegar, scattered the cubed beets with the cheese and the nuts, drizzled over the dressing, and was completely won over.

I took this to work for lunch and heated up the beets in the microwave (not ideal, but cooking facilities at my office are somewhat limited, obviously). I made it at home and reheated the beets in a pan on the stove with the merest splash of olive oil to keep them from sticking to the pan, and they were a delight.

I think one of the reasons people think beets taste like dirt is that they sometimes do. My grocery store sells only organically grown beets. More often than not, they’re caked in mud (and can someone please explain to me why America equates, “organic” with, “filthy”? It seems to me that all organic produce I encounter in grocery stores is encrusted with vast quantities of dirt. I don’t get this.) As a result, if you don’t scrub beets really well—and I mean really well—they will taste like dirt, because they’ll be lightly dusted with soil. To use a term coined by one of my six year olds, roasted soil is undelicious. Ew.

So scrub your beets really well. You can use any color beet you like—plain old magenta ones, golden ones, or the striped ones called Chioggia. The blue cheese I use is a moderately priced “Amish” blue cheese. This is strange, since I live thousands of miles from the nearest Amish person, but even if they’re imposters, they make decent blue cheese. You want a firm blue cheese that crumbles—Maytag blue is the texture you’re looking for, and it’s available most places. The hazelnuts are just hazelnuts. Buy them in the bulk section already skinned and chopped, and save yourself the chore of roasting, skinning, and chopping them.

As for the dressing, thin the sour cream to a drizzling consistency with white wine vinegar. You don’t want it too bitey, just enough to mellow the sour cream so it’s not too rich. The Dijon adds an extra dimension of flavor. If you’re serving this to guests, you can make everything up ahead of time—beets, dressing, cheese and nuts—but keep them separate until you serve. If you use regular beets (as opposed to golden beets), the dressing will turn pink, which is fine if you’re scraping up the last of it with your fork, but not so nice if the plate is just being set down in front of you.

I’m providing quantities, but you can also use your appetite, guests, menu, and palate as a guide. If you’re having this as a starter before a heavy winter meal, you might want to go lighter on the cheese and nuts, so everyone doesn’t fill up. If you’re using this in a transitional menu (a winter/spring one in which you’re serving something a little more delicate than a big stew or a braise, for instance) you could be a little more generous with the toppings to make sure no one goes home hungry. The same goes for the dressing—taste and see what you think. Too tart? More sour cream. Not assertive enough? A little more vinegar and perhaps another teaspoon of Dijon.

If your only experience with beets has been with canned ones, be assured that when you taste fresh beets, there will be hardly any resemblance. You’ll wonder if they even have the same parents as those jerky canned ones.

Roasted Beets with Blue Cheese, Hazelnuts and Sour Cream Dressing
Serves 4-6 as a starter

4 medium beets (about 1 pound, greens removed)
Olive oil
2 ounces crumbly blue cheese, crumbled
¼ cup chopped hazelnuts
Baby arugula or baby spinach for serving (optional)

4 tablespoons sour cream
2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2-3 teaspoons white wine vinegar

1) Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Scrub beets very well with a brush, and dry with a towel.

2) In a small pan (you can even use an ovenproof skillet) pour a little olive oil. Add the beets, and roll them around to coat with the oil. Pour over a little more oil, if necessary to coat completely.

3) Cover the pan with aluminum foil and roast for 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the size of your beets. (A note about beet size and roasting times, the variation of the former of which will greatly influence the latter: My beets, generally, are about the size of an average woman’s fist. Four beets of this size is about a pound. However, you may sometimes find ones that are smaller. In this case, you’ll want to roast them a shorter time. A good rule of thumb is that you should be able to stick a fork into them, but it should resist a little. If it just slides in the way it would into a baked potato, they’re overdone. Start checking big ones at 30 minutes, smaller ones at 15).

4) Allow the beets to cool until they can just be handled, then rub the skin off with a piece of paper towel. If you let them cool too far, and the skins resist rubbing off, just get out your vegetable peeler and peel them. Beets have skin like carrots—very thin and easily scraped

5) Cut off the root and top ends of the beets and cut into ¼-1/2” cubes. Set aside

6) For the dressing, in a small bowl, combine the sour cream and Dijon mustard. Stir to combine. Add in the white wine vinegar, a little salt and a little pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning. Set aside.

7) If you decide to do the beets well ahead, you’ll need to reheat them. To do this, heat a teaspoon or so of olive oil in a medium skillet, and add the beets. Allow the beets to just heat through, tossing from time to time to keep them from sticking.

8) To serve, you can put down a small bed of baby arugula or baby spinach, if desired. On each plate, mound up some beets, and season lightly with a little salt and pepper (just a pinch of each per plate). Scatter with blue cheese and hazelnuts, and drizzle with a tablespoon or so of dressing.

9) Serve immediately.

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