Photo by Maria Robledo
When her spirits were flagging or she just needed a little vacation from everyday life, my mother would take me to a Greek restaurant near the theater district in New York City. We would always order a rustic dish that is a classic in Greek cuisine: cold sliced beets with a garlic sauce known as skordalia. It is an extraordinarily satisfying and somehow heartening dish.
The beets, which taste at once sweet and fruity and slightly of earth, are a perfect foil for the mellow garlic sauce: a creamy base of mashed potatoes beaten with lots of olive oil and vigorously flavored with fresh garlic (an earthier version of egg-yolk based garlic sauces beloved in all Mediterranean countries). It was my first, enduring lesson about the deliciousness of beets.
Summer is the perfect time of year to enjoy beets with garlic sauce, because beets, potatoes, and garlic are all at their peak.
Years later, I used my Greek great-grandmother's smooth wooden pestle to pound garlic and potatoes in a mortar for my own version of garlic sauce, made slightly lighter and fluffier by crushing the potatoes with some of their cooking water before beating in the olive oil. The garlic sauce is also an excellent sauce for cooked dried white beans, any number of raw vegetables such as fennel, peppers, and cherry tomatoes, as well as grilled fish and cold shrimp. It is divine smeared onto grilled peasant bread.
Summer is the perfect time of year to enjoy beets with garlic sauce, because beets, potatoes, and garlic are all at their peak. Garlic will be especially mellow and sweet, with no trace of the bitter sprout that appears in winter. The dish becomes all the more charming if you make it with unusual varieties of beets, like candy-striped Chioggia beets or deep golden yellow beets.
Basic Cooked Beets
In Europe, beets are so widely enjoyed that they are a convenience food. You can buy them cooked, peeled, and packed, with nothing added, in plastic pouches, ready to use at the spur of the moment in endive and watercress salads, or to sauté in butter as a side dish. Increasingly, I find those nifty ready-to-eat beets here for those times when I'm lazy or rushed. Otherwise, I'm happy to start from scratch, with a bunch of fresh beets. Here are some ways to cook them:
To roast beets (most flavorful method): Trim the greens off the beets to within 1 inch and scrub the beets. (Reserve the greens for another use.) Arrange the beets in a small roasting pan, add 1/8 inch water, and cover loosely with foil. Roast at 450 degrees for 30 to 45 minutes, until they are tender when pierced with a knife.
To boil beets: Place in a saucepan with 2 inches of cold water to cover. Bring to a boil and cook until tender, about 30 minutes for baby beets to 1 hour for large ones.
To microwave beets: Place in a microwave-safe dish with about 1/4 cup of water; cover. Microwave on high 10 to 15 minutes until tender.
When cool enough to handle, peel the beets: Cut off the stem and root ends and scrape the thin layer of skin off with a knife.