If you eat out regularly in the city, you probably see beets on menus in all forms: as the star of a salad, pickled as an accompaniment or as the base of a ruby-red risotto. I’ve experienced the pleasure of gently smoked beets, served over an arugula salad with candied pecans at This End Up on Dundas Street West in Toronto. Smoked beets! Who knew?
I could go on about the nutritional value of beets — chockfull as they are of disease-fighting antioxidants plus other good-for-you business like folic acid, fibre and vitamin C. I could even extol the fact that, unlike other root vegetables at their best in autumn, beets are actually in season nearly year-round in Ontario. But do I need to do all that when beets are just straight-up delicious?
Moreover, beets are easy to cook — although they do take a bit of time — and incredibly versatile: boiled, roasted, juiced or eaten raw. Pro tip: if you’ve got a man- doline (a.k.a. a fancy slicer), shave some raw candy-striped beets super thin and dress with a bit of lemon juice, olive oil and salt for a pretty and quick salad.
Of all the great ways to enjoy beets, the easiest and tastiest is to roast them. Roasting caramelizes the beets, highlighting their natural sweetness, and this can be done in advance if you want to stockpile. Cooked this way, they pair well with creamy, sharp flavours (think feta or blue cheese), and are great served hot or cold. Here, they’re the centrepiece of a nice transition-to-cooler-weather salad of lentils, tahini and, ahem, bacon — you guys are cool with that, right?
Note for the time-starved: smaller and fresher beets roast faster — 25–30 minutes instead of 50–60 minutes. Pre-peeling and chopping speeds things up further, but leaving the skins on allows for better caramelization. Look for beets that are rock-hard with greens attached that are firm and vibrant. You can save the greens and sauté them in butter and garlic for a delicious side dish.
For those of you averse to stained hands and cutting boards, hunt down heirloom varieties that range from golden yellow to candy-striped — they taste just as earthy and sweet.
Roasted beet and lentil salad with ricotta salata
- 4 small red or golden beets, scrubbed and trimmed
- Olive oil
- Kosher salt
- 1 cup small French de Puy or Beluga lentils*
- 1 bay leaf
- 3⁄4 cup diced pancetta or 4 strips thick-cut bacon, diced
- 12 thin wedges ricotta salata, or about 1⁄2 cup Bulgarian feta cheese
- Handful chopped parsley
- 3 tbsp fresh lemon juice
- 1 tbsp cider or white wine vinegar
- 3 tbsp tahini paste
- 1 tsp soy sauce
- 1 clove garlic, smashed
- 4 tbsp olive oil
- Preheat oven to 400°F. Create a foil packet for beets, drizzle with olive oil with skins on and sprinkle with kosher salt. If using larger beets, wrap individually. Roast for 30–50 minutes, or until a fork goes through easily. When beets are cool enough to handle, peel skins off and slice.
- While beets are roasting, place lentils in a large saucepan and cover with at least three inches of water. Add a large pinch of salt, bay leaf and onion. Bring to a boil, then simmer about 20 minutes or until tender. Drain and rinse in warm water. Pick out onion and bay leaf, then transfer lentils to a large mixing bowl.
- Fry pancetta or bacon until just crispy, remove and drain.
- Whisk together ingredients for dressing, streaming in olive oil last.
- Remove garlic clove and toss dressing with warm lentils, a tablespoon at a time until well coated, to taste.
- To assemble salad, scoop lentils into four bowls, then top with sliced beets, pancetta and ricotta salata. Garnish with fresh parsley. Serve warm or at room temperature.
* These are the best lentils for salads as they remain firm and cook quickly — avoid canned lentils as they tend to turn out mushy.
Sara Chan is a Toronto-based entertainment lawyer, food enthusiast and unprofessional home chef. Her favourite food group is pork.
Photo: Joe Biafore/iStockphoto