Thursday, February 23, 2017

Give Beets a Chance: Salt-Roasted Beets with Fresh Horseradish

You might have more in common with U.S. Presidents than you realize, at least when it comes to food. Ronald Reagan was known for fancying gourmet jelly beans while his Veep George H.W. Bush made news when he declared war on broccoli. With Jimmy Carter it was an understandable Georgia fondness for cornbread (which Michel definitely does not share); Lyndon Johnson had a thing for Fresca, and the weirdest-presidential-food-obsession award goes to Nixon who liked to eat cottage cheese with ketchup. That's just gross. 
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Those of you who are experiencing Obama withdrawals and other symptoms of 2016 presidential election PTSD might be surprised to learn there was a beet controversy in 2009 when Michelle Obama announced the return of the White House vegetable garden. Beets were excluded. She told an interviewer: "Neither the president nor I have the beet gene." This comment elicited numerous responses from pro- and anti-beet constituents who offered recipes, videos, etc., in support of her position or to persuade her to change her mind. There seems to be no "work together across the aisle" when it comes to the taste of beets, even in the Obamas' kitchen. 

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Michel's response to my question about his childhood beet experiences was immediate and vehement: "I hated them! You could chase me out of the house with them!" His mother Gemma (whose cooking skills have been described in previous posts) made a dish with boiled beets and potatoes to which she added sugar. Redundant, yes, because beets are used for making sugar. Their sweet, earthy quality is one reason they so often end up pickled. (This is where you nod sympathetically and murmur, "Bless her heart.")

Huzarensalade photo courtesy

Google led me to a Dutch dish called "Huzarensalade" or "Huzarensla" that could be what Gemma intended to make. Some sources attribute the name to the Huzaren (Hussars), a cavalry of Hungarian riders who infiltrated hostile territory for the Imperial Austrian armies. The Huzaren had to blend with the enemy so they couldn't build fires for cooking. Instead, they carried prepared foods like cooked beef or tongue, eggs, pickles, beets, and potatoes which they mixed together to make a cold (pink) salad. I'm not sure if the Hussars no-cook strategy worked in their favor or if the outcome was more like the memorable My Cousin Vinny line delivered by Marisa Tomei: "Yeah, you blend." These uniforms don't appear to provide much camouflage.  

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As you can probably ascertain from their intense color alone, beets are chock-full of antioxidants, fiber, and minerals; one "average" beet will provide 11% of your daily Vitamin C, 22% of your daily magnesium, 37% of your daily folate--whatever that does for you. If you buy fresh beets with greens still attached (and not wilting on the stem), you can prepare them like kale, chard, or any other greens you like. They're also brimming with nutrients. 

Michel's recipe will work with any kind of whole beet--red, yellow, chioggia (a/k/a candy cane), or albino; however, despite the visual appeal of the heirloom varieties, only the old-school red beets have betacyanins, a cancer-fighting compound. 

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Ready to roast?

Heat oven to 400 degrees.

You will need:

Whole beets (one big beet = two servings for us)

Coarse salt--kosher, sea salt, etc.

Fresh horseradish (or prepared will do)

Aluminum foil

Baking sheet or roasting pan with a rack

Peel the beets before roasting.

(Michel learned the hard way that this step is far less perilous than trying to 
peel a really hot beet. Also, the gloves keep your hands from turning purple.)

Place one beet on a piece of foil large enough to wrap/close. 
Cover with salt, turning and patting the beet as needed to make sure salt adheres.

Fold foil pouch around beet, making sure edges are sealed. 

Roast on baking pan rack for 90 minutes (or two hours if you forget you have beets in the oven). Tip: You may want to place some foil under the rack to make clean-up easier.

Remove roasted beets from oven and open foil carefully.
Place beets on a safe surface for slicing. 

If you're using fresh horseradish, you will need to peel a piece of it before grating. 

Place beet slices on serving plate. 

Top with grated fresh horseradish. 

Enjoy the sweet-salty taste of the beets paired with the spicy, olfactory-opening jolt of fresh horseradish. 

That's it.