Ruby red beets are the jewels of the earth, with a sweetish mineral taste reminiscent of soil and for any kid whose ever busted his lip, blood. I love beets, but I can’t help thinking of the word geophagy when I eat them. Geophagy is the consumption of soil in order to satisfy a nutritional need, such as sulfur or phosphorus; it's quite literally eating dirt. Geophagy is a form of pica, the craving of non-food items. In my mind, eating beets is a socially acceptable form of geophagy - it’s as if the beets soak up all that mineral goodness from the dirt and concentrate it in the roots, giving beets an unmistakably earthy taste.
Besides the earthiness, beets are satisfyingly nutritious and I'm probably in the minority saying that the red juice is one of my favorite aspects of the vegetable. I like the purplish red splotches on my hands after handling beets, the deeper stains in my cuticles. (I also like the smell of garlic on my hands and can’t imagine why anyone would want to wash it away - that sharp pungent smell wakes up my senses, like lavender or rosemary and reminds me that I've been cooking.)
I’m pretty sure I didn’t knowingly eat a beet until my adult years, and now the vegetable make regular appearances on my dinner table. Sometimes roasted, when the fresh ones are available in the fall, excellent paired with a creamy horseradish sauce; but usually in the pickled form, because my youngest daughter adores pickled beets, and will boldly pick them off her fellow diners' salad plates.
Pickled beets are delicious in many salads, especially a Greek salad - a bed of lettuce, a handful of pepper rings, some olives and feta and slices of pickled beets accompanied by an oregano-accented vinaigrette. I make an amazing Greek salad for company that features pickled beets. The inpsiration is a Tarpon Springs Greek salad with patatosalata, a potato salad that begins with potatoes soaked in red wine vinegar. I garnish this salad with shrimp and homemade pickled beets - pushing the potato salad and shrimp to the corners and piling the vinegary sanguine beets in the center.
Tarpon Springs is on the Florida Gulf Coast, famous for Greek bakeries and sponge diving and this style of Greek salad. On vacation in Florida, if I find a Greek diner, I’ll order this salad, and it’s almost always good, but there’s never enough pickled beets, and horrors, sometimes the beets are not even pickled. My favorite version is from Athenian Gardens in St. Petersburg, Florida. The potato salad is just right. It’s a subtle thing - at first you think it’s bland, but then you can’t get enough of it. This salad has everything - salty feta and olives, sweet shrimp, vinegary pickled beets, crunchy sharp peppers.
This recipe is adapted from "American Home Cooking" by Cheryl Alters Jamison & Bill Jamison (Broadway, 1999). I used canned beets because my market was out of fresh and I figured a beet trek would expand my carbon footprint unnecessarily. The canned beets were delicious, and I’m sure the fresh beets would be, too.
2 (15 oz.) cans whole beets, drained and sliced ¼ inch thick or 1 pound fresh beets, trimmed, sliced ¼ inch thick and steamed for 20 minutes or until tender
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons prepared horseradish
½ cup red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
1. In a glass or plastic bowl, combine beets, sugar, horseradish and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Store in refrigerator.
Greek Potato Salad (Patatosalata)
6 medium red potatoes
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
4 green onions, finely chopped
1/2 cup mayonnaise
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1. Cook unpeeled potatoes in unsalted water until tender, about 20 minutes; let cool just enough so that you can handle them. Using a towel to protect your hand, peel potatoes and cut into 1-inch pieces. Place in bowl and sprinkle with vinegar and salt, add chopped green onions and toss. Stir in green onions and mayonnaise. Season to taste and mix well. Store in refrigerator until ready to serve.
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1. Whisk all ingredients together. Store in refrigerator.
Greek Salad with Pickled Beets, Shrimp and Patatosalata
Serves 4At the height of summer, fresh diced tomato and cucumber would be excellent in this. Don't bother with out of season tomatoes.
1 head Romaine lettuce, torn into bite-size pieces
1 small red pepper, cut into thin rings
½ cup Kalamata olives
1 pound shrimp, boiled for 2 minutes in water with lemon.
2 ounces feta cheese, cut into ¼ inch thick slabs
Patatosalata (Greek potato salad)
1. On a large platter, spread out lettuce. In sections, place ingredients - pepper rings, olives, shrimp, patatosalata, feta and pickled beets. Serve salad with dressing alongside.
Text and images © 2010, Lucy Mercer.