getting down with the beet

The lowly beet has struggled from dirt to fine dining. For years this earthy root vegetable suffered from an image right down there with the turnip.

The lowly beet has struggled from dirt to fine dining.

For years this earthy root vegetable suffered from an image right down there with the turnip. However, chefs are now roasting and shaving the common garden beet, and the orange Chiogga over micro-greens.

Or trickling lemon and olive oil over sliced beets, blood oranges and red onions for a delicious prologue to a main course. When I visited at Inn On The Lake last October, Chef Phil McCaffrey napped a salad with beetroot “snow,” a lovely setup for Alberta beef, roasted rare.

Top black rye with smoked salmon or cold beef tongue, if you dare. Nap with horseradish cream. Indulge in a dry vodka Gibson (that’s a pearl onion gracing the glass, instead of an olive) on ice and you’ve got the makings for a fine luncheon.

I still have a soft spot, though, for beet’s humbler roots. For instance, my dad’s pickled beets—briny, but not vinegar sharp, subtly clove and cinnamon-stick spiced. (Tip: pickle hard-cooked eggs in leftover beet brine. They turn lurid pink, but taste great.)

Beets, simply prepped, sidle up splendidly to corned beef brisket or roast lamb. Boil young unpeeled beets until tender then slip away the skins. Roast mature beets. Place one bunch of whole, washed, but not peeled beetroot, about half cup of water, a good splash of olive oil, sea salt and cracked pepper. Cover with aluminum foil and bake in a 400-degree oven for about 45 minutes.

Pierce the beetroot with a thin knife or skewer. (Do not use a wide blade, as beets will bleed profusely) Remove the skins, slice or chunk, add salt and pepper and a dab of butter—maybe add a smattering of fresh dill.

My favourite rustic meal, hands down, is a big bowl of rosy borscht (“barszcz” in Polish), topped with a good dollop of thick sour cream. Icy days beg for a steaming bowl of borscht and its various adaptations on its Eastern European roots, as rich as the soup itself. Chilled tangy borscht refreshes in summer.

Russian Jews mainly get credit for bringing borscht to America. In Soviet-born Lara Vapnyr’s short story Borscht (from Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love) Borscht is the glue that holds together two struggling Russian immigrants. “Sergei, comes to America to earn money. He battles solitude by hiring a clumsy Russian prostitute, who is as fed up as he is. When the sex fails, the two rustle up a pot of comforting borscht.”

I fix quick borscht (not for the above reasons). Dice one onion, two or three cloves minced garlic, one large celery stalk with leaves, and one large peeled carrot. Sweat the vegetables in oil (1-1 ratio canola/olive) in a large saucepan. Add one bunch of roasted, peeled, grated beets then pour about four cups of vegetable or chicken stock salt pepper, and a pinch of smoked paprika or dillweed to the pot.

When heated through whirl half the soup in a blender (not food processor), and return to the unblended mixture. Dish it up steaming or chilled and float a Yukon gold potato and a dollop of good quality yogurt atop the soup. Delicious, earthy, sweet,

and simple.

More complex recipes include shredded brisket or beef shank, tomatoes, cubed potatoes, maybe kielbassa or bacon and cabbage. (All-cabbage borscht is Mennonite or Doukabor in origin).

Borscht is ecumenical and easygoing in its taste for wine—red or white. White wine brings out borscht’s sweet tang and is nice for summer. Lighter style reds match well with the soup’s earthy characteristics. Eastern European lager—hardly surprising—works beautifully

Listed with the Yukon Liquor Corp.

Reds:

Argentina: Norton Lotengo Malbec $15.75

Canada: Gray Monk Pinot Noir $17.75

Canada: Heritage Series Cabernet Franc $15.50

Hungary: Monipex Szekszardi Voros $14.25 1L

Whites:

Germany: Kendermann Pinot Grigio $14.90

South Africa: KWV Roberts Rock Chenin Chard $11.30

Beer:

Czech Republic: Czechvar $3.40

500-ml.

Pilsner Urquell $15.55 6pk/330ml.

Poland:

Tyskie

500ml. $3.55

Russian Federation: Baltika $3.10

Julie Pegg is a Vancouver-based

food and wine writer.