Friends, Beets, Enemies

Roasted Beet Salad with Feta and Walnuts

I’ve never understood beet-haters. I can fully sympathize with brussels-sprout-haters, for instance, since I even used to be one myself before realizing that a splash of olive oil and a turn in a hot oven make all the difference in the world. Also things like kale (so vegetal! so chewy!) and eggplant (slimy and bitter in the wrong hands) occasionally turn even my stomach, so I can fully comprehend why some people swear them off completely.

But beets? To me they’re nothing but perfect, one of those few miraculous vegetables that manages to cloak a powerhouse of nutrition in a delicious package. So how come millions of reasonable, vegetable-loving folks hate them? Honestly, I can’t even count the number of people I’ve met who are otherwise passionate, equal-opportunity eaters, but don’t even bat an eyelash when proclaiming beets to be the one food they refuse to touch.

So I ask you beet-haters, what is it you detest? Is it the flavor? I know they’re kind of earthy, but so are carrots, parsnips and sweet potatoes, and no one seems to have any issues with them. Is it the color? Granted, it’s intense, and it does admittedly, ahem, haunt you for a couple of days afterward (but that’s all I’m going to say on that topic), and it is a pain to remove beet stains from clothing, dishtowels and countertops, and people who’ve been handling cut beets look like they’ve just finished shooting a scene for a horror movie. Still, several kinds of ripe, red berries do all those things too (well, maybe not the haunting part…) and nobody hates them for it.

I think what’s most likely is that people who think they hate beets just haven’t tried them in the right form. Heck, if I’d only tried them out of a can or jar, I might just hate them too. For one thing, they’re usually too sweet this way, since most manufacturers insist on augmenting their natural sugars to cloying levels. And texturally they’re not the most appealing either, water-logged and flabby, looking like freakish purple potato chips with all those crinkle-cut ridges. What can I say? Beet-haters, if this is the only way you’ve ever experienced them, you most certainly have my sympathies.

But you don’t have my permission to continue hating them. At least, not until you’ve tried my favorite beet recipe. It’s a riff on a French cooked salad, where first the beets are roasted to caramelly softness, then sliced into garnet rounds and tossed with a mustardy, garlicky vinaigrette while still warm. At some point while they’re sitting there those sweet, sour and pungent flavors all sidle up to one another and get comfy, like good friends reunited after a long time apart, but just when you’re starting to fear that all this harmony might get boring, along comes a nugget of salty feta or the crunch of a toasted nut to liven things up. It’s addictive, I tell you; the first time I made this for Manuel, he went from saying, “you made beets… for dinner???” to helping himself to the last few slices when I wasn’t looking. Not bad for a self-described “beet-ambivalent”.

Now, I know beet-ambivalence a far cry from the full-fledged beet hatred many of you subscribe to, but please consider giving them another chance. You may be hesitant to take this advice from me, an avowed beet lover, but think of it this way: maybe, just maybe, there’s a good reason I am. And maybe, just maybe, this recipe marks the start of your life as a beet-lover too.

Roasted Beet Salad with Feta and Walnuts

A word of advice: wear something dark-colored while making this salad (and maybe while eating it too). As careful as you might be, some scarlet-red beet juice will end up on you somewhere. I’m pretty sure it has something to do with different laws of attraction between beets and white fabric, but if you have another theory, by all means share it.
Serves: 6 as a side dish (or fewer, if beet lovers are involved)

about 2 lbs. (ca. 1kg) raw beets

For vinaigrette:
1/4 cup (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup (60ml) red wine vinegar, or to taste
1 heaping tablespoon dijon mustard
1 fat clove garlic, minced
3/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
freshly-ground black pepper to taste

For garnish:
3 oz (85g) sheep’s milk feta, crumbled
1/2 cup (50g) toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped (toasted almonds or hazelnuts are also great)
leaves from a couple sprigs fresh thyme

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Wash the beets, then wrap them in a double layer of aluminum foil. Place on a baking sheet and roast until a knife easily slides through the center of your largest beet, anywhere from about 45-75 minutes, depending on the size of your beets. Unwrap and allow to cool until you can comfortably handle them (they should still be warm, though).

In a small bowl whisk together the vinaigrette ingredients until emulsified.

When the beets are cool enough to handle, slip the skins off using either your fingers or a knife, and cut each beet into 1/4-inch (1/2-cm) slices. In a large bowl combine the warm beet slices and the vinaigrette, using your hands to gently massage everything together (it’s messy, but using a spoon usually results in too many broken beets). Let stand at least 30 minutes for the flavors to mingle – preferably more like an hour or two.

Just before serving, taste the beets for seasoning – they might need another splash of vinegar and/or pinch of salt (though don’t overdo the salt since the feta is quite salty). Arrange the slices attractively on an platter, topped with the feta cheese, walnuts and thyme. Enjoy at room temperature.