When I was a little girl growing up on my grandparent’s farm, my least favorite vegetable was beets.
I loathed and despised them–I thought that they tasted like dirt.
Paradoxically, I used to love helping Grandma can and freeze the bounty of our gardens (every year we grew two one-acre plots–enough to feed the entire family) my favorite project was canning beets, even if I hated the way they tasted.
Why was this?
Because for whatever reason, I was intoxicated by the smell of cooked beets, and I found their brilliant rubine color to be be mesmerizing. The fact that packing slippery slices of these brilliantly colored roots tinted my hands pink was a fun bonus. I especially liked helping to make sweet and sour pickled beets–the fragrance of the hot carmine-colored vinegar-sugar pickling liquid was delicious, even if I didn’t like the way it tasted.
And when we were done, the jars, when they were lined up on tea towels on the kitchen counter, looked like jewels or stained glass when the late afternoon sun poured through the window, bathing the cooling beets in golden light.
It wasn’t until I was pregnant with Morganna that I finally decided I liked beets, and it was because of a craving for iron.
I was unable to take the iron supplements ordered by my doctor, because they made me very ill, so in order to avoid anemia–a problem that I have faced my entire life–I was told to eat more iron-rich foods. Spinach was simple, because I love it, and red meat was no problem as I was craving it. Liver should have been a problem for me to eat, as well as beets, for I hated them, but the truth was, my body needed iron so badly, I started craving them. I would smell chicken livers cooking, or liverwurst, and would start salivating. And when I smelled my then mother-in-law cooking sweet and sour beets, I nearly went mad with hunger and started eating them out of the pot before they were quite finished cooking!
They tasted divine–earthy and sweet, and the “dirt” flavor that so repelled me as a child was infinitely attractive when I was pregnant. And their sauce was buttery, sweet and sour at the same time. So delicious! I took to eating beets nearly every day, I loved them so much.
Too bad I had never heard of borscht at that time, or I would have been eating it all the time–beef, beef bones, sauerkraut and beets–I would have been in heaven!
Surprisingly, my love of beets stayed long after Morganna was born and I was finished nursing her. Over the years, I discovered various ways to make beets, ways that made them palatable to even the most vociferous of the anti-beet brigade. I particularly liked introducing baby roasted beets to beet haters presented in a salad with pears and chevre, dressed in a honey-balsamic vinaigrette.
Last night, I had a craving for beets, which was convenient, because I had a little bundle of baby beets in the fridge from Shade River Organic Farm I bought at the Farmer’s Market the week before.
But I didn’t have time to roast them, so I decided to peel them, cut them into quarters and boil them until they were just tender enough to pierce with a fork, but not so tender that they were mushy. Mushy beets, unless we are talking about pureed beets in borscht, just don’t do it for me.
I cooked them in as little salted water as possible, and after they were done, I added about a tablespoon of local wildflower honey, and a half tablespoon or so of balsamic vinegar.
A pinch of salt, and then about a quarter teaspoon of my house made toasted and ground garam masala and a teaspoon of butter finished the glaze for the beets, which I garnished with lacy fresh cilantro leaves.
So simple, and so very like the sweet and sour beets my Grandma made, and yet still, different. The balsamic vinegar added a floral note as did the honey, and the garam masala drew out the earthiness of the beets and embraced them with the warmth of sunny spices.
“Garam masala” means “hot spice mixture” and refers to the warming spices used in Indian foods. It doesn’t necessarily refer to chilies, however, and not every garam masala blend includes chilies. Each family or cook has their own blend of spices that they use, usually toasted and ground in small amounts in order to ensure that the spices are as strongly scented and flavored as possible.
My garam masala blend is made of one teaspoon black peppercorns, 3 cloves, 1/4″ stick of cinnamon, c1 tablespoon oriander and 1 teaspoon cumin seeds, and 2 green cardamom pods, all toasted in a skillet then cooled and ground to a powder. I keep it in an airtight jar on my counter, and use it at the end of cooking whenever I have a dish that needs a little extra something to make it sparkle. You can use your own recipe for garam masala or use whatever commercial blend you like. Penzey’s Garam Masala is pretty darned good if you don’t want to make your own.
These beets make a great side dish for any summer meal–whether you are making American, French or Indian food–they are delicious. They are just as good hot off the stove, at room temperature or lightly chilled, though if you are going to chill them, I suggest using olive oil instead of the butter.
This recipe is only enough to serve one or two people, but you can scale it up however you like in order to make more. Just be aware that the garam masala should be added to taste in larger quantities–spices never ever scale up perfectly by simple multiplication the way other ingredients do.
Baby Beets With Balsamic Honey Glaze and Garam Masala
1/2 pound baby beets, tops and root ends trimmed, peeled and quartered
water as needed
pinch kosher salt
1/2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon wildflower or other honey
1 teaspoon butter
1/4 teaspoon garam masala–or to taste
1/8 cup cilantro leaves for garnish
Put beets in a small saucepan with only enough water to barely cover them. Bring to a boil over medium heat and cook at a brisk simmer until the beets are done to your liking. I like mine tender enough to be pierced by a fork, but still firm. but you cook your beets how you like them. I like to cook them quickly, though, so as little of the pretty red coloring, called betaine, comes out in the water as possible.
While the beets cook, allow the water to reduce naturally to about half of its original volume. If, by the time the beets are done to your liking, there is still too much water, just drain some of it out. Then stir in the other ingredients, except for the cilantro, and let it simmer for a minute or two more to allow the flavors to mingle and the sauce to thicken slightly.
Sprinkle with the cilantro leaves and serve either immediately or after allowing the beets to come to room temperature.
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