Funny weather, this year. The fruits and veggies are feeling the effects. The cherry season was over in a flash and pumpkins are making an early appearance. Saw some young beets at the market yesterday. They are an early summer crop – the beet greens are chopped up and converted into a cold soup called chłodnik – a Polish gazpacho. The “old” beets are available year round. Since they are a dime a dozen, no one thinks much of it. Back home in Malaysia, beetroots are treasured for the anti-oxidant super powers. In the UK, they seem to enjoy a better status, too. Recently, I caught a Nigella’s program on tele where she pureed the boiled beets, added a squeeze of lemon and some dill and used it as a sauce for halloumi cheese. In her Forever Summer book, there’s a grated fresh beetroot, dill plus mustard seed salad. Darina Allen recommends roasting the walnut-sized young beets. Below are some other ideas I dug out from my archives.
Rooting for the Beetroot (Kaleidoscope, August 2007)
The beetroot first reeled me in, not so much with its taste, texture or looks. But by what its name stands for in the Polish language. Burak (beetroot) is a metaphor for country bumpkin. Generally, it includes people, country and city dwellers alike, who are uncouth and not well-versed in savior-faire. Sometimes, the mere mention of “burak” sends people into a peal of laughter. It’s cruel fate to be singled out to represent the unsavory aspects of social misconduct. And the beetroot is probably embarrassed and indignant at this injustice, for it blushes in a livid shade of purple-magenta.
What have these turnip-shaped veggies done to be booted into the same camp as louts? One thing going against them is the scruffy looks. These knobby orbs have patchy lesion and dark lacerations plus a goatee of scraggily roots. Before they get a bath and scrub, the peel has a mucky pallor from underground living. More likely, the beetroot’s greatest liability is being too ubiquitous. Day in day out, it is available either fresh or in pre-cooked vacuum-packed bags. Sharing the same grocery space and a regular companion of the beetroot is celeriac. This root veg is also a convoluted lump. Somehow, seler (celeriac) is spared from derogatory connotations. Yelping “You seler!” just doesn’t have the same comic ring as “you burak!”.
Countries to the west of Poland treat the beet with more respect. In British and American gastronomy magazines, it is feted as a super food alongside exotica like goji berry and açaí. It is replete with healthy thingamajigs. A Michelin-starred UK chef elevates it to the Sunday lunch table by turning it into a pinkish gratin. He also said the beetroot is one of his favorite vegetables.
Despite the burak’s philistine status, they are fussy-pots. Quite often I lug them home to find myself not having the time to attend to them immediately. When I check up on them a few days later, they have turned limp and wrinkly. To put them on the table is not a quick operation of wash, boil and ready in 15 minutes. Peeling and chopping will give your knifes and arms a good workout. Not to mention staining your fingers and chopping board. To mollify their sturdy fibers into submission, it takes a good hour of simmering.
For a brief period in the summer, the beetroot rouses up a buzz. In the warmth, the baby beets have to be harvested quickly before their fibers turn tough. The young beets and beet greens are the star ingredients of chłodnik. It is a cold soup, like a Polish gazpacho. While some take to it at first sip, others, like me, have to first rewire the brains. The soup’s pink pigmentation is more associated to Barbie dolls and desserts rather than starters. Once I reined in my prejudice, the soup won me over with its creaminess and a melding of sweet, salty and tart flavors to go with the crunchy bites of fresh summer produce. It is an easy dish to recreate at home. It just requires a massive amount of slicing and dicing.
Bit by bit, I have learnt from foreigners and locals to tame the beetroot. My son’s Polish godmother advocates boiling them whole and en masse before freezing them. When a beetroot salad is needed, simply grate and reheat them on a pan. From a Londoner living in Poland and raising three young girls, the tip is to slow roast fist-sized beets in a low temperature of 1400C and then disrobe them before serving. And from Eric Fettke, the executive chef at the Intercontinental Hotel of Warsaw, the directions on how to make beetroot chips.
“The biggest problem is the [beetroot] have quite a large amount of water so they fry longer,” he says. That’s about 17 minutes of deep frying which induced me into a catatonic daze.
“Take them out when they stop bubbling in the fryer. They’ll go black if you do it too long,” chef Eric continues. “They’ll still crisp up a little when they stand for a minute of so. 1600C is the best and then don’t forget to salt them, very nice.” The end results resemble a potpourri of rose petals.
With all the beetroot’s tasty potentials, I readily join the burak’s camp.