Contemplation on Beets

I’m embarrassed to truthfully admit here that I’ve never cooked a real beet. In my twisted mind I’m thinking, “All that red. What a mess.”

However, my personal challenge this summer is to reach out to lesser known produce, i.e. those I haven’t had a previous kitchen encounter. This leaves a very broad field, since without a nudge I tend to gravitate to the same comfortable options. That in mind, beets came into focus at my local farmer’s market this week and I timidly opted for only 4 – just in case. They sat in my fridge for 2 days as I pondered what to do next.

With all the fabulous fresh fruit lately I’ve gotten into deep dessert overload. In fact, I’ve been seriously contemplating a one day fast – a time to halt, to eat simply and meditatively. Only enough to purify the mind, body and soul: a light salad, a bit of fruit, round it out with lemon tea. A very good idea.

In this salad mode I mused, I could kick it up a notch and take the easy way out with those beets! Feature them raw with some edgy greens, a delicious cheese – perhaps a Rogue River Blue or a Basque P’tit Pyrenees, add sweet tangy Australian mandarin orange wedges, some toasted hazelnuts, maybe a few olives, top it all off with a lovely Raspbery-Citrus or Sherry Vinaigrette. Nice. Well, not exactly a simple salad, and likely more than a days worth.

Of course then, Red Flannel Hash was a real possibility… I love Corned Beef Hash; but it seemed the humble beet would slip into obscurity, overshadowed by those hefty hash partners. Besides, I’m trying to go light here… maybe not.

A friend suggested Borscht and we both tittered at the idea! Borscht? Ha! Now that’s desperately dull, isn’t it? I’m sure I’ve had it before, but it left no memorable impression. And so it went. Until I remembered the Smoked Chicken Stock in the freezer; and then Borscht began to make sense. More research, further contemplation. Thus evolves a soup equally worthy of an all day fast, a feast, or a classy chilled starter course.

Good news! I am relieved to reveal that beet juice is not life threatening, although I carefully donned surgical gloves, just in case. The peeling and chopping proceeded quickly, as opposed to roasting them whole (another consideration), and I was done in no time; all surfaces including my wooden board wiped clean without a trace of red! Into the pot they went along with the other veggies and soup was ready within 30 minutes! Next time I will forget the gloves – and there will be a next time!

This is truly a healthful soup, incredibly satisfying, and a stunning ruby red color to behold. I personally like the texture and identity of the jewel-like vegetables and opted not to puree – another option. Although the Smoked Chicken Stock is a fabulous addition, I now recognize that the combination here is so pristine, an excellent vegetable stock would be equally successful. I took my cue from the pickled beets we served at Thanksgiving when I was growing up, and offset the beets’ natural sweetness with a similar touch of cider vinegar. On final, I stirred in chopped dill plus a good hit of fresh lemon juice, and tweaked it with a bit more sugar to balance the sweet/sourness. A dollop of yogurt to swirl in makes this a spectacular summer soup – hot or cold.

Further embellishments: add grilled or sautéed Kielbasa for a full and satisfying meal. If the beet greens are available, cut them up, sauté in olive oil and garlic, add a hint of lemon juice, and garnish the soup.

Beet Borscht
Inspired by 1998 Bon Appetit magazine, per Epicurious

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chop
2 cloves garlic, mince
¼ teaspoon allspice
6 cups Smoked Chicken Stock, approx., or other broth
1 cup tomato sauce
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt and freshly ground pepper
1 bay leaf
2 carrots, medium chop
3 red potatoes, medium chop
4 beets, peel, medium chop
1/2 head green cabbage, cored and medium chop
1/4 cup dill, chop, or more
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Additional salt, pepper, sugar, or vinegar to taste
Yogurt or sour cream, lemon, dill

In a large pot over medium high, heat oil and sauté onion until soft; stir in the garlic and allspice and cook until aromatic. Add broth, tomato sauce, condiments and seasonings; add carrots, potatoes, beets, cabbage.

Bring soup to boil. Reduce heat and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes. Stir in the dill; adjust flavors with lemon juice, salt, pepper as needed, and/or sugar to balance.

Serve hot or cold. Top with dollop of yogurt, sprinkle with dill, offer additional lemon. Serves 6. ~~

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