I have a theory that, when it comes to beets, people can be divided into two categories: those who love ’em and those who loathe ‘em. There are very few equivocators. Beets tend to inspire passion, positive or negative, pro or con. I myself am pro. So much so, I’ve discovered that I actually don‘t cotton to beet haters. My friends, with one notable exception, are beet lovers. And that one beet hater, I’m working hard to convert -- he hasn‘t put a beet in his mouth in 20 years. Once he tastes one, well, I believe he’s sophisticated and earthy enough to love it.
I was not always pro-beets. Like most children, I was blind to their virtues. Of course, I was raised on canned beets, which tasted, well, like cans. My mother made Harvard beets, which tasted like cans with an overpowering whiff of vinegar. And remember how coffee shops used to adorn dinner salads with that dark-magenta oval of pickled beet, whose immediate removal was imperative?
What converted me from beet loather to beet lover was growing them. In graduate school in a tiny town in Iowa, I lived in an old Victorian house with a large back yard, and I planted an enormous, ambitious garden. With a novice‘s enthusiasm, I ordered from seed catalogs with abandon. Fascinated by vegetables in novelty colors, I ordered white and green okra, white and green string beans, white eggplant, red, yellow, orange and pink tomatoes, and beets.
Iowa soil, black and incredibly fertile, spoils a gardener. (Iowan farmers brag that one-third of the world’s richest soil is found in the Hawkeye state.) You only need press a seed into that loam, then step out of the way. It was a good thing that my boyfriend was a beet lover, because soon enough I had a multicolored bumper crop.
I remember the first batch of beets I cooked: I steamed them, all three colors, then sliced them and buttered them. They were so pretty -- the yellow Golden Jubilees growing rosy from contact with the red Detroit beets, the paler pink Chioggias (striped when raw) also blushing more deeply at the contact points. When I lifted a forkful to my lips, I smelled something familiar, something dear: I smelled the earth, the soil.
It‘s true, as so many beet detractors say: Beets taste like dirt. But in the best possible way. Beets are earthy, unabashedly so -- and that’s why we who like ‘em like ’em.
These days, in the food world, beets amount to a veritable trend. Aficionados no longer need search far and wide to find the objects of their desiring. You can find bunches of them in all their jewel-tone varieties at certified farmers markets. And more and more chefs are putting beets through their paces -- in salads, sides, terrines and borschts.
Campanile was the first high-end restaurant where I saw beets on a menu, in this case a memorable roasted-beet salad flavored with fresh grated horseradish and thyme. Former Campanile sous chef Annie Miler now makes her own terrific roasted-beet salad, available in the deli case at Clementine, across the street from the Century City mall.
One of Spago Beverly Hills‘ signature dishes -- there’s a picture of it on the billboards promoting Wolfgang Puck‘s cooking show -- is a beet-and-goat-cheese appetizer, an ingenious red-and-white layered stack (how do they cut it without the cheese turning pink?) sprinkled with hazelnuts and dressed with a citrus vinaigrette. Spago chef Lee Hefter also makes a delicate beet-and-crawfish salad in the spring, when the beets are small and mild and the crawfish are sweet. Beets and hazelnuts are also paired in a composed green salad by chef Josie LeBalch at Josie in Santa Monica. Gino Angelini, at his eponymous new Angelini Osteria on Beverly Boulevard, serves an appetizer pairing sliced beets with smoked sea bass in a compelling, sensuous juxtaposition of earth and sea flavors. Joe’s in Venice and Il Pastaio in Beverly Hills both make good beet risottos finished with dabs of goat cheese.
Of course, beets have always been made into borscht. An excellent beet borscht, served cold, with or without a warm potato andor a dollop of sour cream, is house-made at Langer‘s Deli on Alvarado. The high-end version can be had at Barney Greengrass, the deli atop Barney’s in Beverly Hills, where the very popular house-made, mildly sweet ‘n’ sour chilled beet borscht is presented in elegant tall glasses. Uzbekistan, an Asian-Russian restaurant on Sunset, serves a hearty Ukrainian borscht made with beef, beets, cabbage, potatoes and other vegetables.
Parking in the lot one day at Philippe, the venerable “Home of the French Dip Sandwich” downtown, I saw crates of beautiful leafy beets awaiting entry at the back door. These were soon to be transformed into Philippe‘s own pickled beets, pungent slices dotted with peppercorns and onion. The deep-magenta pickling juice will also pickle the hard-boiled eggs, staining them an otherworldly hot pink.
Campanile, 624 S. La Brea Ave.; (323) 938-1447.
Clementine, 1751 Ensley Ave.; (310) 552-1080.
Spago Beverly Hills, 176 N. Canon Dr.; (310) 385-0880.
Josie, 2424 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 581-9888.
Angelini Osteria, 7313 Beverly Blvd.; (323) 297-0070.
Joe’s, 1023 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice; (310) 399-5811.
Il Pastaio, 400 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 205-5444.
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Langer‘s Deli, 704 S. Alvarado St.; (213) 483-8050.
Barney Greengrass, 9570 Wilshire Blvd.; (310) 777-5877.
Uzbekistan, 7077 W. Sunset Blvd.; (323) 464-3663.
Philippe, 1001 N. Alameda St.; (213) 628-3781.