Which of us cannot remember our elementary schools' lunch lines serving 'Harvard beets?' This was one of those foods - like overripe badly canned peas that went straight from the serving line into the trash most of the time. The idea of Harvard beets is a sound one; serve beets in a thickened sweet and sour sauce. The problem came in the implementation:
First, beets were boiled instead of roasted. Roasting caramelizes the sugars, making the beets taste much, much better. Second, vinegar was used instead of lemon juice to make the sauce sour. Too often, if one uses the wrong kind of vinegar in a recipe, it leaves the taster with the impression that the food has gone bad. And this certainly was true of the elementary school recipe. Lemon is sometimes a better acid, particularly when sweetness is part of the equation. Finally, the sauce was primarily water thickened with corn starch. Well, this is a non-starter. To add just a little cornstarch to an already good sauce is a reasonable way to improve its mouthy feel; but we emphatically assert that you cannot make an edible sauce by adding cornstarch to water. Or to water that contains sugar and vinegar.
Why waste all this effort railing about the inadequacy of a recipe nobody has cooked for forty years? Because the world of cooked beets had moved so little from these bad old days. How can beets be made good? Roast them in their skins. Then treat them with respect, like real food. Here are some ideas.
Canned beets and frozen beets always taste foul to me. I am convinced that the beet, when well cooked is a food of culinary beauty. Yet the number of times I have had compelling foods made from beets I can count on the fingers of one hand. I have had great borscht. And my mother made 'pickled eggs' - hard boiled eggs soaked in vinegared beet juice overnight. I cannot recall ever having beets roasted or boiled or steamed or sauteed or fried that impressed me. But I am confident that when properly prepared the beet can best many better foods prepared in lackluster ways - and become the food to beat.
Roast 1 bunch beets, cool and peel, cut into batons. Sprinkle lightly with Florida Seasoning Pepper. Chop 1 red onion. In a small bowl mix 1 tbs balsamic vinegar, 2 tbs extra virgin olive oil. Mix dressing, onion, and beet together and marinate an hour or so. Serve on a bed of Arugula or Mixed Spring greens.
Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.