Not Beeten Down

I vividly remember my one childhood experience with beets. I have no idea what else we had for supper that night, but there were three slices of canned beets on my plate, and my mom wouldn’t let me leave the table until I ate them. Several hours later, she downgraded that order to one bite, and I finally got to get up. I’m not sure why she was so insistent, because I don’t think she cares for beets herself. They certainly never appeared on our dinner plates again.

Why I picked up a bunch of chubby little red beets at the farmer’s market last week, I’m still not quite sure. But I tucked them and their sprightly greens into my backpack with numerous other purchases—including a tub of local goat cheese, knowing its affinity with beets—and brought them home. Everyone seems to say that the best way to tackle fresh beets, first of all, is to roast them, so I knew that was item one on the agenda. Because it was already shaping up to be a hot day, I took a page from Lidia Bastianich and roasted them at 400F for about 45 minutes with a quarter-inch of water in the bottom of the pan to help get them started. Although they seemed fork-tender to me, I may not have cooked them quite long enough, because their skins didn’t slip right off as I had been led to expect; I ended up using a paring knife to finish the job.

Because the strong flavor of beets is something I wanted to work up to slowly, and because I wanted to use the greens as well, I chose my recipe very carefully: fresh beet fettuccine with sauteed greens and a simple creamy goat cheese sauce. Reserving the 3 smallest beets to toss with the pasta, I pureed the rest in my food processor with a splash of balsamic vinegar to lubricate them. For my pasta dough, I adapted Marcella Hazan’s recipe for spinach pasta, muttering apologies under my breath (she clearly disapproves of other flavored pastas); I think I ended up adding about 3 tablespoons of my puree, which retained some small slivers of beet, to the dough before it came together in all its magenta glory. It rolled out with absolutely no problems, and once I had the onions and beet greens sauteeing for the condiment, I ran it through the cutter and dropped it in boiling water.

Beets are shockingly beautiful root vegetables, I have to give them that. The cooked pasta lost some of its vibrant color to the cooking water, but remained respectably pink, particularly once the cut beets joined them. Despite my scrutiny, I was not able to discern any beety flavor to the fettuccine itself—probably Marcella’s reason for disdaining colored pastas as not adding to the eating experience. The color alone made me really happy, though, and who knows, maybe it retained some nutritional value as well. I liked the sauce for its creamy tang and simplicity, and the beet greens tasted much like the more familiar chard. I even ate a bite (note the singular) of roasted beet without coercion, but I’m still not convinced I will ever like them. I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt in the future, though, because I do think I undercooked them slightly. I just need some time to muster up the courage again.

Beet Fettuccine with Greens and Goat Cheese

1 bunch beet greens (from about 8 beets)
3-4 small beets, roasted, peeled, and quartered
1/2 C olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced vertically
2 cloves garlic, chopped
3 T balsamic vinegar
1 lb fresh beet fettuccine (see below)
Freshly ground black pepper
6 oz soft goat cheese (chevre)
3 oz grated Parmesan cheese

Wash the beet greens thoroughly, removing the thick part of the stems (save for another recipe, or cut into 2″ sections and blanch for 3 minutes in the pasta water) and chop coarsely. Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta and add 2 teaspoons salt.

In a large saute pan over medium heat, warm the olive oil and add the onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes or until soft. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute. Add vinegar, and cook for 1 minute, stirring to break up the brown bits. Add the beet greens and stir several minutes, until wilted; finally, add the roasted beet wedges to warm through.

Cook the pasta until done, just a few minutes for fresh fettuccine. Using tongs or a spider, transfer the pasta to the saute pan with the vegetables, allowing some pasta water to come along for the ride (reserve extra in case you need it to loosen the sauce later). Toss gently with the tongs to mix, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Add half of both of the cheeses to the pasta. Stir through, spooning a few more tablespoons of the pasta water over the cheeses if necessary to warm them and make them saucy. Add remaining cheese and toss; serve immediately.

Source: Adapted from The Oregonian.

Fresh Beet Pasta

1 1/2 C flour
2 extra-large eggs
Roasted beet puree to bring dough together (about 3 T)

Place flour and eggs in the bowl of a standing mixer and beat using the paddle attachment until it begins to come together; while the mixer runs, add beet puree a tablespoon at a time, until dough comes together as a ball. Switch to the dough hook and knead for several minutes, until smooth and elastic. Allow dough to rest for 15 minutes before rolling out and cutting, either by hand or with a pasta roller.

Source: Adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, by Marcella Hazan.

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