Just Beet It: A Slow-cooked Dish That Fuses Eastern Europe and North Africa

North African chreimeh and borscht from Eastern Europe blend in a slow-cooked dish of beets that’s delicious with either fish or cheese.

Dan Peretz

Taste is the one thing you can’t fool with. Scientists may be able to grow redder and shinier tomatoes, and longer and greener cucumbers, and even make watermelons without seeds and sabras without thorns. But not everything that’s pretty and tempting on the supermarket shelf and remains fresh-looking forever in the refrigerator is tasty. Every food, despite its ritzy beginnings, ultimately makes its way to the mouth and the tongue, where it is truly judged – and found praiseworthy or bland, just right for the salad or better returned to the bag.

Ideally, a cook should know the farmer who grows his fruits and vegetables at least as well as he knows his kitchen and the dishes he cooks, and learn as much as he can about the different varieties and the soil in which they were planted and the air in which they grew and the insects that moistened the roots and the aphids that nibbled the leaves.

Recently I visited the devoted farmer who grows the vegetables that end up on my table. He showed me how they remove the weeds from the rows of parsley plants, how they stretch a net over the lettuce leaves to keep away pests, and how the beets grow unhindered underground, with only their shiny green and purple leaves showing above. And when you go out to the field, you should take along a folding knife, which you can use to dig around the root to extract one fennel bulb, say, and then trim off the leaves and slice it and enjoy the taste of the freshly picked vegetable.

On my visit I took out this knife among the beets and used it to scrape off the mud that stuck to the one I pulled out. Then I sucked on the sweet root and enjoyed the juice. If you’ve ever experienced the true flavor of a beet that has just been collected from the womb of Mother Earth, you know there’s nothing else like it – the taste of the root and of growth, of bitter and sweet, of the bright reddish-purple.

I came home from the good farmer’s fields with many bunches of beets and didn’t place them in the refrigerator even for a minute. Right away I rinsed and peeled and sliced and cooked until my pots all blushed deep red and greatly sweetened my day.

Chreimeh borscht

This recipe makes Eastern European-style borscht in the style of North African chreimeh. The cooking is slow, with hardly any liquid, and allows the olive oil to take in the juice of the beets without searing them. The gentle heat allows the beets to caramelize, soften and crumble, while the garlic and hot pepper enhance the sweetness of the beets and draw the flavors back to North Africa.

You can add the tomatoes at the bottom of the dish to avoid adding water, but this requires a certain skill and you must pay close attention during the cooking. The recipe calls for a small amount of water as a precaution in case you have the gas flame on too high, but I don’t add any water at all. When the beets are soft, before you add the fish or cheese cubes to the dish, mash the beets a little bit with a spoon so that they almost fall apart and can better coat whatever else is placed in the dish. Of course, you can also serve it as is, with a mound of white rice, and do quite nicely just like that.

For borscht with fish:

1 bunch cilantro

2 tomatoes

4 sweet dried chushka

peppers

5-6 medium-size fresh beets

1-2 hot green peppers

10 garlic cloves

½ cup (120 ml) olive oil

½ cup (60 ml) water

1 tbsp sumac

fine sea salt

coarsely ground black

pepper

2 fresh, plump sea fish,

weighing 800 grams each

Rinse the cilantro and spread it evenly in the bottom of a wide, shallow pot. Cut the tomatoes in ½-cm thick slices and arrange on top. Remove the stem and seeds from the dried peppers and add to the pot.

Peel the beets and slice crosswise very thinly. Arrange the slices evenly in the pot, but not stuck together. Slice the hot pepper and arrange it and the garlic cloves between the beets. Season with salt and pepper and pour the olive oil and water evenly on top.

Cover the pot and place it over medium heat. Let the olive oil heat up. When you hear it bubbling, lower the heat and let the vegetables sweat in the pot over a low heat for an hour.

After an hour, the vegetables will be very soft and exude their juices. Uncover the pot, sprinkle on the sumac and then tilt the pot so the oil absorbs the seasoning evenly. You can also mash the contents of the pot slightly with a broad spoon to help the sumac blend with the dish.

To prepare the fish: Ask the fishmonger to clean the fish and cut it in slices 2-3 centimeters thick. Dip each piece in the sauce on one side and then turn it over and put it back in the sauce, so the fish is entirely colored by it. When you have added all the fish to the pot, put the lid back on and continue cooking over a low flame for 25-30 minutes, until the flesh of the fish has turned white. Use a broad spoon to serve, and add a generous dollop of sour cream on top of each serving.

For borscht with fried cheese cubes:

200 gr Tzfatit or feta cheese

100 gr flour

1 egg

100 gr bread crumbs

vegetable oil for frying

Cut the cheese into small cubes. Beat the egg. Dredge the cheese cubes in flour and shake off the excess. Dip the cubes in the egg and then in the bread crumbs. Pour 3 centimeters of oil into the pot and heat. Fry the cubes until golden and add to the beet dish just before serving, so they retain some of their crispness.