It’s all about beets in the Baltics – and beyond

Beets are by far my favorite root vegetable – and that’s even with stiff competition from sweet potatoes. It is one food trend in recent years that I will stand behind, yet I am one of those weirdos that has loved beets long before the beet salad became a given (next to Brussels sprouts and kale) in farm to table restaurants. Beets, along with broccoli and canned peas, were probably the only ‘vegetables’ I would touch as a very picky child. I’m pretty sure I inherited my odd affinity for beets from my father, though my maternal grandmother often served them at Sunday dinners. As a kid, I clamored for canned beets, and especially for Ukrop’s (a now sadly defunct local supermarket chain that few, if any of you, will know) marinated beet salad. Molly’s beet salad, a Whole Foods salad bar staple, can’t touch that!

Beets, beetroot, or “peet” in Estonian – is omnipresent in Estonia and, to a slightly lesser extent, throughout the Baltic region. So you can imagine my delight to find beets on almost every menu in Estonia: Pickled beets at my breakfast buffet! Beets in my Vapiano fast casual salad. Roasted beets in my vegetable side dish at more dinners than I can count.

I even found paleo-friendly, vegan “peeditoorleib” (raw beetroot bread/crisps) in a local grocery store – a bit stale/chewier than I might prefer and slightly bland, but with the unmistakeable earthy sweetness of beets (below).

Estonian paleo-friendly "peet leib" - beetroot bread made with seeds and a touch of seasoning.

Estonian paleo-friendly “peet leib” – beetroot bread made with seeds and a touch of seasoning.

So, for the beet-shy, what’s in it for you? Acquiring a taste for beets might enhance more than your palate; the nutritional benefits are many. A 2012 study found that consuming beet juice 75 minutes before a 5K run increased runners’ performance, particularly their pace the last kilometer.

Beets – especially their bitter salad greens – contain naturally occurring nitrates (yes, the same compound found in fertilizer, not the processed preservative nitrite), but, more importantly, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds called betalains, which give beets their characteristic red-purple color and may inhibit growth of some types of cancer cells, including colon cancer. So detox away with beets – but make sure not to overcook them, as the betalains break down quickly with heat.

My favorite way to enjoy beets is pickled; the vinegar balances the beets’ sweetness and breaks down their tough flesh. Many of you have probably seen the typical fad beet salad – red and often yellow beets, thinly sliced, served with goat cheese and a light salad green, such as watercress or arugula. I will never turn down a beet salad, but they often seem a bit tired or unoriginal. I did recently try a wonderful ginger-marinated beet salad with scallion creme fraiche at, of all places, a ski resort in Maine (Sugarloaf’s 45 North) that made me a bit less of a beet snob.

Sugarloaf Mountain's 45 North marinates beets in ginger and serves them with arugula, toasted pistachos, and literally the creme de la creme, scallion creme fraiche

Sugarloaf Mountain’s 45 North marinates beets in ginger and serves them with arugula, toasted pistachos, and literally the creme de la creme, scallion creme fraiche

Of course, one can always go traditional Russian with some borscht. The most authentic versions are full of meat, creating a dish substantial enough for a full meal, such as the one served at Riga, Latvia’s Uncle Vanya.

Perhaps the most innovative — and unexpectedly delicious — use of beets was a cousin of the veggie burger composed of pureed beets, chickpeas, and carrots at Estonia’s Kohvik Komeet – think a slightly less over-the-top Cheesecake Factory, served over a warm lentil and sun-dried tomato salad and topped with hummus (photo at the top of the post). I attempted to recreate this dish for this blog, but attempt #1 fell far short of Komeet’s and is not ready for a recipe posting yet. How did I fail?  I attempted to puree the ingredients with an immersion blender, which did not leave it smooth and light enough in texture; I was trying to keep it vegan but believe egg would make a good binder; and pomegranate vinegar was a horrible touch.  It wasn’t terrible, but not ready for prime time.  I know, I know, you were really looking forward to a recipe for a bright red-purple,vegan veggie patty, right?

My first attempt to recreate Kohvik Komeet's beet, carrot, and chickpea patty, served over arugula, sun-dried tomatoes and lentils and topped with my homemade tzatziki. At least it looked pretty!

My first attempt to recreate Kohvik Komeet’s beet, carrot, and chickpea patty, served over arugula, sun-dried tomatoes and lentils and topped with my homemade tzatziki. At least it looked pretty!

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Going vegetarian, vegan, or raw in the Baltic States (Yes, you can!) | The Culinary Diplomat

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