Tuesday, April 12, 2011

just beet it

lentil salad with beets, green beans, and goat cheese
To me, beets are the perfect example of two things - a) don't knock it till ya try it (twice), and b) there are some things that absolutely cannot, and should not, ever be eaten out of a can.

There are a lot of people out there who can't fathom the idea of beets.  And I get it; I honestly do.  I used to be right there with y'all.  I didn't eat beets until about a year ago.  In fact, the only time I ever even saw beets prior to that was at my grandparents' house. Every few Sundays, we'd get in the car and drive a half hour to their house, and Dad and/or Uncle Jim would take my grandfather to the Methodist church.  While the men were at church, my mom and grandmother would cook the sides for lunch later that day, while Bollie, Jamie, and I would "play" the piano (I had no formal training, but I thought that four years of violin gave me a solid foundation) or run around in the back yard.  My grandparents had a sprawling lawn with tons of tall pine trees, and Paw-Paw would give us a dollar for every trash bag of pine cones we collected.  When I look back at this, I realize how much of a steal he was getting, and all I can do is laugh...he really was so cheap.

Church was at 11am, but if it lasted more than an hour, Paw-Paw would walk out.  I wish I were kidding. He once told the minister that the church didn't pay overtime, a story fondly retold during his eulogy.  Just after noon, the men would come through the back door with Hardees boxes of fried chicken and buttermilk biscuits.  And we'd feast.  Heaping platters of succotash, green beans, and sauteed spinach, all things my Dad loves, littered the table.  We'd help ourselves to chicken, biscuits, and the sides, passing the plates around for seconds and thirds until we were fully sated.  At the end of the meal, there was no chicken, no biscuits, no succotash, no green beans, and no spinach.  But there generally was a little plate of canned beets left over.  Slimy, icky canned beets, (too) perfectly trimmed (manufactured?) into circular disks.  The plate looked as if one or two beets had been picked off, but they mostly looked lonely sitting there, like the last kid picked in PE class awkwardly looking down at his Chucks until the last team captain called his name.  It was a shame, really.  The little congealed beets got no love.  My grandfather made me try one once; I think I took one bite and didn't eat a beet again until last summer, a good fifteen years later. 

I ended up with a bunch of dirty purple beets before my cousin/aunt/relative Angelita was going out of town.  (I don't know what it is with people always dumping their unused produce on me, but I'm not complaining!)  I searched for the perfect beet recipe for a few days - I was determined to find the proper vehicle to reintroduce the villain into my diet.  Every recipe said that roasting the beets was the failsafe way to bring out the flavor, preserve the texture (no slime!) and make them look pretty, too.  So I gave it a shot.  And I forgot to set the timer, and they cooked an extra twenty minutes longer than they should have.  Despite this slip-up, the final result was a caramelized, candy-like bulb, sweet and savory all at once.

So then I bought beets for the first time.  And then bought them again.  I tried boiling them once, but they're just not the same as when they're roasted.  Roasted beets are a versatile addition to several dishes.  I like them in salads with goat cheese, avocado, and citrus, or simply tossed in a bit of balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper.  I recently put some roasted beets into a warm salad with lentils and green beans and topped with creamy goat cheese (when the opportunity presents itself, I top everything with goat cheese).  It does take a while, but it's not a lot of hands-on time.  It's also great kitchen practice, as it utilizes a few different cooking methods. 

The pink tinge of the beets actually makes the lentils kinda pretty, which, as we have discussed before, is hard to do.  It's like putting lipstick on a pig.  A tasty pig.  If the pig were a vegetarian.

Alright, so maybe that metaphor doesn't hold.  But just give beets a chance.  Please and thanks.

Warm Lentil Salad with Roasted Beets and Green Beans
Serves 3

1/2 pound uncooked brown lentils (or 1 heaping cup)
6 baby carrots or 1 regular carrot
2 sticks of celery
1/2 medium yellow onion
1 bay leaf
4 sprigs thyme
3 cups vegetable stock
3 beets
1/2 pound green beans
3 ounces goat cheese, crumbled (omit if you want a vegan version)
salt and pepper
balsamic vinegar or maple dijon viniagrette (recipe found here)

1.  Preheat oven to 425.  Rinse and scrub the beets with a brush, if you have one, and chop off greens about 1/2 inch from the top of the beet bulb.  Do not remove the root of the beet.  Wrap each beet in tin foil and place in a roasting dish.  Let roast in the oven for about an hour, or until the beets can easily be pierced with a fork. 
2.  While the beets are roasting, heat olive oil and garlic in a pan and saute chopped onion, garlic, and carrot on medium-low heat, about five minutes (this is called mirepoix, and is the base for much of French cooking).  Add lentils, herbs, and vegetable stock.  Bring to a boil and cover.  Reduce heat and let simmer 20 minutes, or until lentils are soft.  The dried lentils should make about 3 cups of cooked beans.  Drain.
3.  Remove ends of green beans.  Place green beans in steamer dish in one inch of water.  Cover and let steam five minutes. 
4. When beets are ready, remove from oven and let cool 10 minutes.  Remove the foil from the beets and peel skin.  The skin should easily peel off, no knife is required.  You may want to wear gloves if you don't want pink fingers.  Be warned that the beet juice can stain, so if you get some on the counter or clothes, wash immediately.
5. Chop beets and green beans, and toss with lentils.  Top with salt and pepper and coat with balsamic vinegar or maple dijon viniagrette.  Top with goat cheese and serve.

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