What makes the beet unique is its rare combination of sweetness and the deep earthy flavor stored in its flesh. Hard to believe, but in antiquity people cultivated beets solely for their nutritious leaves and completely ignored the root, which back then was thin and pale. Medieval farmers realized the potential inherent in the root, and proceeded to change the growing method. Over the ensuing centuries another beet slowly evolved, deep crimson in color, plump and sweet. Its comforting taste, nutritious qualities and ability to winter over have made it a dietary mainstay throughout Europe, especially in the winter, whether boiled or pickled, put up as jam or made into sweet-and-sour borscht. And that's not even mentioning the salads, using either raw or cooked beet.
Winter brings a wide variety of root vegetables, including carrots, celery, kohlrabi, fennel and turnips as well as beets. Beets are best eaten in early winter, before they have had a chance to age and to absorb rainwater. Their flavor now is young, concentrated and rich, and they are wonderfully sweet. With a little care you can find small beets, which have a delicate texture and deep color. It is worth searching them out. When buying beets, make sure to select ones that are firm, with smooth skin.
Beets are delicious raw: Peel, then grate or cut into matchsticks and season with olive oil, lemon juice, and coarse salt. Eat now, or set aside for a light pickle.
For boiled beets, wash gently and trim the root and stems to about 3 centimeters from the root, Don't peel! Place the beets in a wide pot, add water to cover plus a bit, cover the pot and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 20-30 minutes, or until a toothpick goes in easily, with only slight resistance. Remove from heat and let the beets cool inside the still-covered pot. This method of steaming yields sufficiently soft beets that are flavorful and have a smooth and pleasant consistency. When the beets are cool enough to handle, slip off the peels under cold running water.
Beet play nicely with strong flavors: goaty cheeses, tart yogurts, dominant herbs, rich tehina, tart apples, sharp horseradish, salty anchovies and other strong-tasting fish.
Beet, black lentil and tehina salad
4 medium beets, cooked as above and sliced lengthwise into eighths
1/2 cup black lentils, soaked in water for 2 hours
Bunch of cilantro, washed, dried and chopped
2 tablespoons pure tehina
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
Zest of 1 lemon
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 green chili, chopped Juice of 1/2 lemon (2 tablespoons) 2 teaspoons vinegar
3 tablespoons olive oil
1. In a medium pot, cook the lentils in 3 cups of water for 15-20 minutes, until cooked through but not mushy. Drain and rinse in cold water.
2. Place the dressing ingredients in a lidded jar and shake until blended.
3. In a bowl, mix the beets, lentils and cilantro, pour the dressing over and mix again.
4. Drizzle the tehina on top and serve.
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