The Importance of Beets and Family Meals
As a kid, during our summers spent with my grandparents on Nantucket, we ate dinner together outside every night. My sisters and I would spend the later part of the afternoon running wild with neighborhood friends and around 6 o’clock we would hear the bell ringing (yes, Marjorie had a brass dinner bell!) and know it was time to get on our bikes and make our way home to help set the tables. There were two tables made of heavy cedar, and the adults sat at the large one in chairs with arms and my sisters and I sat at the smaller one on less comfortable benches. Every single night, we were expected to bring all of the place settings out on trays and then clear the tables at the end of the meal. Honestly, I never knew anyone else at the time who prepared for and ate dinner that way; with such care and intention. It was one of the few constants in a fairly chaotic and crazy childhood, and I still feel grateful for it every day.
My husband also cooks for a living and all of the young people who live with us in the summer work many long hours (a gaggle of 20-somethings, both related and honorarily related). Most nights, even when we get home late from our respective food jobs, we attempt to sort out some kind of dinner. Mostly big bowls of salad, something grilled and a sheet tray piled with a filling veggie or starch. We don’t sit at separate tables, rather finding a mismatched chair around the fire pit with plates in our laps. There is often storytelling, music and singing, and most importantly, shared family time involving food.
There are some dishes that were constants on my grandmother’s tables. One of my favorites was her simply prepared beet salad. Dark red beets (there really were only one kind back in those days), white wine vinegar, minced shallot, dill, oil, salt and pepper. That was it. I adored that salad and have made it a million times for my own family and clients too. I also make slightly fancier beet salads and here is one that you can either toss together messily, make pretty on a platter family style, or even plate individually if you are feeling fancy. I personally recommend family style, as that is my happiest way to eat.
Beet Salad with Feta, Mint and Hazelnuts
Feeds 2-4 depending on the appetite
1 bunch of small to medium sized beets (whatever kind you love best)
2 tablespoons of white wine or champagne vinegar
1/3 cup of crumbled feta (the best you can afford)
2 tablespoons of toasted hazelnuts
A handful of minced mint leaves
A healthy splash of your best EVOO
Salt and Pepper to taste (be careful as the feta is salty!)
Cut the beet tips off, leaving about 2 inches of stem. Don’t bother washing them! Cook in a large pan of boiling salted water until you can easily stick a knife in the largest beet-about 20-40 minutes, depending on size (I use about a handful of kosher salt in all vegetable cooking water). When they are done, quickly run cold water over them until they are cool enough to work with. Cut the tops and tails off with a paring knife and the skins should slip off easily. This method also works for roasting beets. Slice into pretty rounds, about 1/8 inch thick.
If using a platter, scatter the rounds on it and slash evenly with the vinegar. Scatter the feta, then nuts, then mint over the beets. Splash with EVOO, grind a little pepper and sprinkle a little salt. Share with your loved ones.
If you are feeling casual, you can dice the beets and throw all the ingredients in a bowl together and serve over some lightly dressed greens. Or plate individually for a fancier look.