I was born an adventurous eater. While the lunchboxes of my elementary school mates were filled with aluminum wrapped peanut butter and jelly, ham and cheese and egg salad sandwiches, mine often had well seasoned leftovers from our previous night’s family dinner – duck liver and minced quail stir fry, bitter melon soup, twice cooked pork belly, or potato vinaigrette with Sichuan peppercorns. I remember the first time I had beets, my mother Ruby warned me – it’s not like eating a red plum, steak tartare, or raw tuna. She also promised me, like with all red foods including watermelon, that it is good for the blood.
My first taste of beets came in the form of a borscht – a traditional Eastern European soup that made its way into modern Chinese cuisine resulting from the Chinese’s obsession with red colored food. Inspired by the Hong Kong style borscht which is beef stocked based, with tomatoes, ketchup, and red vinegar (which has food dye) and last night’s leftover vegetables thrown in, my mother came up with an all natural version that incorporates beetroots in lieu of artificial color in the recipe. More vibrant in fuchsia and red tones, and tastier than the ubiquitous version found in restaurants, despite my mother’s warning, I helped myself to seconds at dinner table, and even packed up some for my lunch the next day. The next morning when I went to the boy’s room, I understood - explicitly - my mother’s warning. I left for school queasy, confused, and mellow - sans borscht.
Even though I was traumatized, my mother continued to cook beets and serve borscht. After all, if red food is fortuitious…
Working as a cook in the kosher dining hall at Brandeis re-introduced me again to beets, also in the form of borscht. Here it was served in a more customary fashion, with cabbage, potatoes, and sour cream. Despite minor reservations, I had small servings of it – just to taste as any cook does, and concluded that I might have enjoyed eating it one more if we didn’t use canned beets, which I found to be bland, metallic, miserable, and in desperate need of added sugar.
As I grew to become an adventurous cook, from beet curious to beet lover, I’ve learned many different ways to appreciate beets. The complex flavor and the many available colors (red, orange, purple, pink, etc.) of beets allow me to use them in both sweet and savory preparations. One of my favorite methods to enhance their earthly, mineral like and sweet qualities is to slow roast them in foil. When cooked they are soft, tender, buttery in texture, and ideal for a hearty salad composition. Their candy like flavor profile also lends themselves nicely for a rich and moist cake, similar to a dye-free red velvet or one made with milk chocolate. They are great simply pickled and served as a sweet and sour snack, or as an accompaniment to a fatty protein such as lamb or pork belly. I also like them raw and crunchy, shaved thinly and incorporated in a salad, or julienned in ribbons as garnish alongside tuna sashimi or sesame crusted tataki, a classic presentation among many early pioneers of East meets West cuisine. During especially carefree mornings, or after a particularly challenging night, I like to juice beets with apples, carrots, and celery into a nutritious super power drink, packed with folic acid, calcium, potassium, vitamins, and antioxidants.
Now that I’ve piqued your interest in beets, I encourage you to conduct some experiments and embark on some adventures of your own. I also challenge you to develop new faces and personalities for this versatile vegetable, and please share your ideas with me in this blog!