Can’t Beet the Flavor

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in: Vegetables

Everyone is concerned about healthy food but sometimes this can lead to some silly ideas. One summer my friend, cookbook author and fellow Zester Daily contributor Martha Rose Shulman, submitted her piece on beets for her NewYorkTimes.com column called “Recipes for Health.” Her editor titled Martha’s story “Beets: The New Spinach.” We had a big laugh about this. It sounds so ridiculous, because beets aren’t new, don’t need to be compared to anything, don’t taste like spinach, and are botanically related only distantly by both belonging to the family Chenopodiaceae. The meaning, of course, was not about gastronomy. It was a health issue as Martha’s column is in the health section, so it made some sense.

My approach to health is indirect. I believe the question “is this food healthy” is nonsensical. One’s diet or lifestyle can be deemed healthy or unhealthy. Foods themselves are neither healthy nor unhealthy. As a cookbook author, I prefer to get my readers interested in dishes in their own right, through understanding the particular culinary culture or perhaps enjoying the food on its own.

The tasty merits of beets

If you have a plate of roasted beets in front of you, and you’re not a microbiologist (or even if you are), as a gastronomer, you’d be interested in the geometric texture of the slice, the essential taste of beetness when the root is roasted, the color so perfectly fitting the description maroon. You’d consider the staining qualities, how to handle beets when cooking them, what other foods might be served with beets, the relative merits of boiling versus roasting beets, and what to do with the beet greens.Beet greens

I might also talk about how most everyone hated beets that came out of a can, how in Roman times beets were appreciated for their leaves, not their roots, which probably were not the fleshy bulbous ones of today. What a marvelous vegetable we discovered once we had a real beet. I could talk about my attempts to grow beets or how they are prepared in other cultures.

You may have made the beets with yogurt and swooned about how beautiful a preparation that is. You might mention that beets are nutritious.

However, if you talk about the fact that beets are high in folate, manganese and potassium and that their greens, so often chopped off in supermarkets, contain beta-carotene, vitamin C, iron and calcium, then you are a geek (unless you’re a nutritionist, microbiologist, or other researcher).

While it’s true that beets are very nutritious, if you are buying beets because of folate, you’re a dork. That’s not about joy, that’s about a half-assed understanding about how the body works, a science that changes constantly and which an average well-educated person couldn’t keep up with if they tried. Even nutritionists have a hard time staying current with the recent research.

Don’t be a healthy food geek

None of this is new. Humans have been concerned with health and food since the beginning. But what about joy? What about the joy of eating the beet? What about how beets get integrated with other foods? Of course one should educate themselves about nutritional issues. But there is no need to get geeky about it. And if you always ate “healthy” foods, life would be joyless. And in fact it is, and that’s why people are fat in this country. You’ve seen those skinny, pale, humorless, yoga-twisting girls at Whole Foods? Is that the goal?

An Arab dish of beets and yogurt called shawandar bi'l-labanThey don’t eat properly because they are overly concerned about issues they don’t understand. They make me want to stuff a cruller down their gullet. What does folate do? Or beta-carotene? Is it possible to have too much? Do you know?

Not even the health writers (most of them) can adequately explain this.

You need to talk to a microbiologist. Try making beets with orange blossom water and Moroccan spices and if folates is the first thing you think of, you need to see a shrink.

Beets With Orange Blossom Water and Moroccan Spices

Serves 6

Morocco is abundant with orange trees and orange juice vendors can be found everywhere. Orange flower water is distilled using an alembic, a device for distillation brought to Morocco by the Arabs. Paula Wolfert tells us that they call this syrup made from orange blossom water knelba in Morocco. One usually finds orange blossom water, along with rose water, sold in Middle Eastern markets, although some supermarkets may have it in their international or baking sections. This refreshing meze also goes great with grilled spiced lamb rib chops. This recipe is adapted from Paola Scaravelli and Jon Cohen’s A Mediterranean Harvest published in 1986, where they call it salata remolacha, which is the Spanish phrase for beet salad.

Ingredients

1 pound beets, leaves removed and saved for another purpose
4 cups water
½ teaspoon sweet paprika
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon orange blossom water
½ teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds
Pinch of ground cinnamon
Juice of 1 lemon
3 scallions, chopped
Salt to taste

Directions

  1. Place the beets and water in a large saucepan, bring to a boil, covered, and continue to boil until tender, about 1 hour. Drain, reserving ½ cup of the cooking water, and peel when they are cool enough to handle. Let the reserved cooking water cool too.
  2. In a small bowl, combine the reserved cooking liquid, paprika, sugar, orange blossom water, cumin, cinnamon, lemon juice, scallions and salt. Slice the beets thinly and arrange in a serving bowl. Pour the dressing evenly over the beets and refrigerate for 1 hour before serving.

 


Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.

Photos, from top:

Beets with orange flower water and Moroccan spices.
Beet greens.
An Arab dish of beets and yogurt called shawandar bi’l-laban.

Credits: Clifford A. Wright


Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard/KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for "A Mediterranean Feast." His latest book is "One-Pot Wonders" (Wiley).

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