Alain Passard, founder and head chef at L'Arpege in Paris, pulled meat from his menu in 2001 because, he announced, he wanted more culinary challenges. "One day I woke up and asked myself, 'What have I done with a leek, with a carrot?' Nothing, or maybe just 10 percent of what can be done with a carrot."
Some of his dishes are complex—a chocolate avocado soufflé, a three-layered nasturtium soup—and others are the culinary equivalents of sniffing a flower, uncomplicated bites that present the morsel's true flavor. A beet baked inside a solid pyramid of salt, for example, provides a striking but unobstructed journey into the depths of beetitude.
This is a realm worth exploring, but the rewards don't always come easy. Tom Robbins, in his novel Jitterbug Perfume, calls the beet "the most intense of vegetables ... deadly serious." Its texture ranges from wood to jelly. Its flavor is dirt and sugar. It stains anything you cook it with and anything else it touches, including your insides. Plenty of people are at a loss for what to do with beets, and so they simply boil or roast them. But there are many finer things to do with beets that are just as easy.
Here's a trio of recipes to help set you on a beeten path less traveled. All are simple, use just a few ingredients and give striking results. In addition to my version of Passard's beet in a salt pyramid, there are beets in chocolate sauce (dedicated to Tom Robbins) as well as the working man's beet, the one for dinner tonight: braised in vinaigrette.
While I'm focusing here on the beet part beneath the ground, the leaves also are worth eating in almost any context, including steamed, sautéed, in salads, etc. For raw use, you may want to trim the stems, which behave more like roots, with strong flavor and staining potential.
Since I can't bear listening to myself trying to pronounce betterave rouge en croûte de sel, I call Passard's beet dish "Blood on the Snow," though it isn't mine to name. Since I can't get my hands on Passard's sel de Guérande, which is brownish, my white coarse sea salt looks more snow-like.
Mix four cups of coarse salt (non-sea salt will work, but it's better with sea salt) with a cup of water, stirring until it reaches the consistency of wet snow. Build an inch-plus base of salt in an oiled cast-iron skillet. Clip the beet stems just above the tuber and snip the thin taproot. Place the upright beet firmly upon the salt pedestal and pack more wet salt around it. Use a putty knife to shape and smooth the salt into a perfect pyramid, if you like. Beets from a messy pile will taste exactly the same.
Preheat the oven to 300 F and bake the salt/beet pyramid for two hours (an hour and a half for medium or small beets).
Remove the beet from the oven and let it cool for 30 minutes. The salt will have hardened into a granular shell, so use a hammer and chisel to open the tip of the pyramid, revealing the beet in its cavity of salt. Remove it and brush off any salt clinging to the skin. Cut the warm vegetable into wedges and drizzle with aged balsamic vinegar.
The vinegar lends acidic sweetness and a subtle, forest-like complexity that interacts with the musky beet. It’s a marriage not unlike the pairing of wine and meat.
Beets are also perfectly at home on the sweeter side of the flavor profile and go especially well with chocolate. I've played around with brownies, cakes and cookies and improved many a recipe or mix with grated beet. These days, I go the easy way: beets in chocolate sauce.
Slice beets into quarter-inch rounds and boil in just enough water to cover them, adding more water as necessary. When cooked to your desired tenderness, do not drain. Add chocolate chips, preferably dark. Keep adding chocolate until the sauce is as thick as you like it—probably somewhere around 1/3 cup chips per medium-size beet. Adding a little heavy cream is a good option here—it’ll vanish without a trace into the deep chocolate beet blackness. Serve as a stand-alone dessert or as an ice cream topping. Don't forget to drink the chocolate beet sauce at the end, with or without milk.
The above recipes are simple, yet so spectacular they seem like an event. But at home, when I just want some pedestrian, low-profile beet for dinner, I keep it simple. Trim and slice a beet, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and add equal parts balsamic vinegar and safflower oil to generously cover the bottom of a pan. Place the pan in the oven, about six inches beneath the flame. Broil until the beet slices are soft, about 12 minutes, flipping them at least once. Serve with the crème of your choice—a dollop of chèvre or sour cream, perhaps, or a big glop of mayo (my favorite mayo is actually fake mayo: Grapeseed Oil Vegenaise).
It's a vegetable that's part mineral, and you'd think part animal when you see it bleed.
Minus the vinaigrette, this is how I usually cook red meat. So it comes as less of a surprise to me that the salt and pepper braise brings out the beet's meaty earth-tones. Not many vegetables are versatile enough to taste sweet like candy one moment and rich like meat the next. Just watch your step, because beets can be moody. It's a vegetable that's part mineral, and you'd think part animal when you see it bleed. While it isn't exactly high maintenance, the beet demands to be treated right, and that includes making it the center of the universe. The beet doesn't play well with others. It wants all of your attention.