Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Beets, beets, bodacious beets!

Photo by Matthew Aron Roth
Witamy!  Beets just may be one of the most under-appreciated foods in the history of eating. Several websites point out that although the leaves have been eaten since before recorded history, the red bulbous roots which we commonly eat today were more often used by healers and did not become a popular food until French chefs recognized their potential in the 1800's. From the earliest times of medicine, beets have been used to treat anemia, poor digestion, constipation, piles, poor blood circulation, kidney disorders, skin ailments, dandruff, gall bladder disorders, cancer, and heart diseases.

The health benefits of beet roots can be attributed to their richness in nutrients, vitamins and minerals. They are a source of carotenoids and lutein/zeaxanthin. Beets are also rich in dietary fibre, vitamin C, magnesium, iron, copper and phosphorus. One website I saw mentions that beets are also full of powerful anti-oxidants called anthycyanins. They are very low in calories, but have very high sugar content and are also used to make refined sugar.

Now that we’ve covered the technical stuff, the really cool thing about beets is how amazingly versatile they are as a food. Growing up in Pittsburgh and occasionally frequenting a “beer garden”  (that’s a Western Pennsylvania term for local hangout – kind of like Cheers) I can still see those large jars perched on the bar, filled with hard boiled eggs floating in dark red liquid. Even before I could legally slurp the foam of an Iron City beer, I loved wrapping my lips around the end of a pink egg, biting down into the firm yellow yolk surrounded by envelope of firm egg white that had been absorbing the tang of the pickled beet juice. The best nickel I ever spent!

Photo by Matthew Aron Roth
These days, Laura and I are often asked about what distinguishes Polish foods from others. The answer is found in Polish cuisine’s use of ingredients and flavorings such as kielbasa, dill, and, for sure, beets.  I confess that I’ve not always been a fan of plain beets out of the can - my Mom often julienned canned beets and added them to green salads, not my favorite. However, my two all-time favourite Polish dishes are beet soups, known in Polish as Barszcz, and a beet relish known as Cwikla  (pronounce: chfi’ kwa) – nothing more than chopped beets mixed with ground horseradish in whatever proportion your lips can stand.

Barszcz is the most iconic of Polish soups and is an uncontested favorite throughout Eastern Europe.  There are hundreds of varieties, depending on which region or town or village your recipe originates.  The clear varieties, not much more than flavored broth, are very sophisticated holiday specialties, most often sipped from a fancy china cup to accompany other Easter or Christmas appetizers.  More hearty versions get their balanced flavors from the addition of vegetables, sour cream and occasionally a full head-on shrimp or two.  They are commonly served both hot and refreshingly cool.

There are several classic recipes for beet dishes in our new book, including a clear Barszcz for Christmas, Cwikla, a very simple Marinated Beet Salad, and Chlodnik – a cool summer Barszcz with the most amazing pink color with flavors to match. It must be said here that Dan and Matt, who styled and photographed the plates for our book, were not very familiar with beets before coming to our kitchen.  As expected from two young men in a perpetual state of hunger, they had to taste every dish in the book.  By the time they tasted all the beet recipes, it’s safe to say they had become converts!

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Here is a simplified recipe for a very quick and easy version of Barszcz that would be great for a spring lunch, served with hunks of fresh crusty rye and your favourite adult beverage. Only 15 minutes to prepare! Smacznego!

Barszcz
6 beef bouillon cubes
3 1/2 cups water
2 1-pound cans of red beets (not pickled)
1 14-ounce can of brown baked beans
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons sour cream
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped

Bring water to boil in a large pot.  Dissolve the bouillon cubes and add all the beet juice drained from the two cans of beets. Rough-chop 1 cup of beets and add to the pot; save the rest of the beets for another day.   Rinse the beans well, add to the pot and bring back to a low boil. Add the lemon juice and seasonings to taste.  The salt and lemon juice will enhance the beet flavours. Also, you should definitely taste the pepper.   Remove from heat.  Serve in casual bowls and top with dollops of sour cream and sprinkled parsley.

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