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I always assumed that beets originated in Europe's "borscht belt," Russia or Poland, where many versions of this beet soup are made. So I found it fascinating to learn that these red roots are thought to have originated in the Mediterranean region, where some of my favorite beet recipes come from.
French, Moroccan and other Mediterranean cooks usually prepare beets as a simple appetizer, a salad, that I find at least as tasty as borscht. Unlike borscht or other beet soups, which require peeling the beets and can be rough on your fingers, for salads you cook the beets in their skins. Once the beets are cooked, the skins slip off easily under running water.
In contrast to some Eastern European and Scandinavian formulas, which call for marinating cooked beets in vinegar with a little sugar and horseradish or spices, the French savor the vegetable's natural taste and season it with just a bit of vinaigrette dressing. Most people make the dressing quite delicate, using vegetable oil, a little wine vinegar, salt and pepper. Even cooks who season it with pungent Dijon mustard, onions or garlic tend to add these flavorings with a light hand so the dressing highlights but does not overpower the vegetable.
Variations of this recipe abound around the Mediterranean. A lively beet salad popular in Crete calls for dressing cooked beet slices with olive oil, lemon juice and rigani (Greek oregano) and arranging them on a platter with orange slices, watercress, feta cheese and black olives. Sonia Uvezian, author of The Cuisine of Armenia (which is strongly influenced by the Mediterranean cooking of Turkey), prepares a tasty beet and sesame salad with an olive oil and garlic vinaigrette and a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds.
Judging from the number of recipes that come from the southern shores of the Mediterranean, inhabitants of the Maghreb seem to be especially fond of beet salads.
Perhaps it's because they have longer experience with this vegetable. According to the World's Healthiest Foods Web site (whfoods.com), "The wild beet, the ancestor of the beet with which we are familiar today, is thought to have originated in prehistoric times in North Africa."
Fortunee Hazan Arama, author of a book on Moroccan Jewish cooking, Saveurs De Mon Enfance (tastes of my childhood - in French), gives five basic formulas for turning cooked beets into salads. Four call for oil and lemon juice, with the seasoning completed by either cumin, sugar, parsley or onion. For a spicier salad, she suggests sauteing diced cooked beets in oil with garlic, paprika and cumin, then sprinkling them lightly with vinegar. If your beets come with their leaves, she recommends cooking them and adding them to your salad.
Sometimes Moroccans like sweet beet salads, according to Latifa Bennani Smires, author of La Cuisine Marocaine (in French). She presents a recipe for beets moistened with an exotic dressing that happens to be fat free - paprika, cumin, cinnamon, sugar and orange flower water mixed with a little of the beets' cooking liquid.
Beets also make an attractive embellishment for other salads. At the Parisian cooking school where I studied, beets sometimes topped our green salads in winter and provided a brilliant color contrast, an appealing smooth texture and a lovely sweet flavor that beautifully balanced the hardy, somewhat bitter, cold-weather greens like chicory, endive and dandelion sprigs. Occasionally pungent cheeses like Roquefort or toasted nuts joined the beets as a garnish, turning the green salad into a festive first course.
When our chefs added walnuts or hazelnuts, they often made the dressing with toasted walnut or hazelnut oil.
A more modest French salad pairing beets with white beans is sometimes called Breton beet salad because beans are loved in that province. To make this salad, which is suitable as a meatless main course, cooks mix the beans with vinaigrette, onion and parsley, then toss them with bright green lettuce and top the mixture with sliced beets.
As in many other salads, the beets are added last so they will not discolor the other components. French cooks like their Breton beet salad best when the beans and beets are lukewarm. Depending on the season and on your mood, you can serve any vinaigrette-dressed beet salad warm, cold or at room temperature.
Beets can even enhance the standard Israeli salad. I discovered this when I happened to have one beet left from a batch I had cooked earlier in the week. I sliced it and used it to top my staple salad, which I call my lazy lady's Israeli salad, with packaged lettuce mix adding volume to the usual diced tomatoes, cucumbers and onions. The beautiful, bright purple hue of the beet slices made them the star of the salad.
Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning Faye Levy's International Vegetable Cookbook.
BEET SALAD WITH CHEESE, PECANS AND GREENS
This salad is inspired by the festive beet-topped green salads I learned to make in France. Use any pungent cheese you like, crumbled blue cheese, feta or goat cheese or thin sticks of Swiss cheese. You can substitute Belgian endive for a quarter of the lettuce mixture. Steaming gives the most delicate result but the beets also taste good boiled and cook in less time.
To make a Breton-style Beet and White Bean Salad, toss 11â„2 cups slightly warmed cooked white beans with the lettuce. Traditionally you would omit the cheese and pecans, but you can leave them in the salad if you like.
5 or 6 small beets, about 4 cm. in diameter, rinsed
2 Tbsp. wine vinegar
2 to 3 tsp. Dijon mustard
salt and freshly ground pepper
6 Tbsp. vegetable oil
6 cups mixed baby lettuces or bite-size pieces of romaine
3â„4 cup crumbled Roquefort or feta cheese
1â„2 cup pecans, lightly toasted
To steam the beets: Bring at least 2.5 cm. of water to a boil in base of steamer without allowing boiling water to reach steamer holes. Place beets on steamer top above boiling water. Cover tightly and steam over high heat for 50 minutes or until tender, adding boiling water if water evaporates.
To boil the beets: Put beets in a saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat about 40 minutes or until tender.
Remove beets from steamer or saucepan and let cool slightly. Peel beets while holding them under cold running water.
Whisk vinegar with mustard, salt and pepper until blended. Gradually whisk in oil.
Dice or slice beets and put in a small bowl. Add two tablespoons dressing and mix gently.
In a large shallow bowl lightly toss lettuce with two tablespoons dressing, or more if needed. Taste and adjust seasoning. Spoon beets over lettuce. Sprinkle with feta and pecans and serve.
Makes 5 or 6 servings.