Have you ever noticed that out-of-season produce such as asparagus and strawberries are popular choices for Valentine’s Day dinners?
What’s wrong with a good winter root vegetable with a deep garnet color and a heart-like shape? Yes, of course, I am talking about our humble friend, the beetroot.
Its cultivated form, says the Oxford Companion to Food (on whose cover is a photo of beetroot), is descended from the sea beet, B. maritima, that grows wild around the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of Europe and N. Africa. There are various forms and colors, but the red beet, with purple and yellow pigments combining to produce its strong scarlet color, was embraced soon after its introduction to England in the 17th century. Its juice is often used as a natural food coloring.
French and Italian chefs cut the beets into interesting shapes and figures for their salads.
That reminds me that my sister Milly once made a beet borscht for Valentine’s Day, cutting all the beets into heart shapes.
Though heart-beets (pun intended) were too much trouble for me — and even Milly noted that she did that only once, long ago — I did think a beet salad would be nice around Valentine’s Day — a salad described quite fittingly in 1699 as “a grateful winter Sallet.”
The salad I made is a classic combo: cooked cut beets are dressed with a vinaigrette and served atop greens with some toasted walnuts and a dollop or two of goat cheese.
Of course there are countless variations on this theme. I added orange zest and a little fresh orange juice in addition to the oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, but a dressing made with lemon zest and juice would certainly be just as nice. You could serve it warm and serve on gently cooked beet greens. You could use hazelnuts in place of walnuts, feta cheese instead of goat cheese. Or omit the cheese altogether, and add some segments of orange or mandarin….
About cooking beets: I wrapped them in aluminum foil, put them on a baking sheet and baked them at 350 degrees for a long while –about an hour — but I’ve read of a quick method for those with microwave ovens: simply put a few beets in a covered microwave dish and cook until tender, about 5 minutes.
In both cases, rinse the beets under cool water and slip off their skins (which will temporarily stain your fingers pink) before cutting into wedges, slices, matchsticks, or whatever shapes strike your fancy. Even hearts.
After your grateful winter beetroot salad, there will still be plenty of room for dessert.
A happy Valentine’s Day to all of you!