I love beets. There’s just something about that sweet and earthy flavor, al dente firm yet tender bite, and intense color that I just can’t get enough of.
Growing up beets were never on the menu, and I’m not sure that I knew what a beet even was until I went off to college. My grandparents were always big gardeners, so you might think that beets would have been part of my childhood experience, but for whatever reason, they weren’t.
I don’t really remember the first time I ever ate one, or whether or not I liked it at the time, but eventually I realized that they’re amazing. Oddly enough, part of that beet love may have had something to do with my favorite author. I was in college the first time I heard of Tom Robbins. I was sitting at the bar after a long night waiting tables, sipping on my shift drink and shooting the shit with one of my coworkers about whatever I was reading at the time. Someone a few seats down at the bar overheard us and chimed in, “Have you ever read any Tom Robbins?” I hadn’t, but at the time I wasn’t convinced and didn’t take any steps to change that.
A month or so later I noticed a Tom Robbins book on a shelf in a friends apartment, and curiosity finally got the better of me. I asked if I could borrow it, and was instantly hooked. At this point I’ve read almost everything he’s ever written. A few titles I’ve read over and over to the point that my paperback copies are covered in masking tape and would probably disintegrate if I tried to give them another go. The first title I read still remains my favorite, and Jitterbug Perfume is definitely the one title I’ve read more than any other.
It’s also the title that I’ve recommended most, and every time anyone has actually taken my advice and read it, they’ve come back to tell me that they LOVED it with a capital LOVE!
I won’t spoil it for you, because I urge you to give it a read yourself if you haven’t already, but I will say that the subject matter is a bit more “fantastic” than I usually go for. I’m not someone who normally enjoys reading fantasy, but Tom Robbins’ fantasy is somehow more about the fantastic and less about the unbelievable or childish. He writes so intelligently and poetically and passionately that I’m completely sucked into Jitterbug Perfume‘s tales of time travel and immortality and individuality and old pagan religions and magic and sex and… perfume.
One craggy old root vegetable (the beet) plays an oddly important role in the story. After reading the book for the second (or may it was the third) time, I briefly contemplated getting a beetroot tattoo. I’m sure my mother will back my story up, as she was equally confused and horrified by the idea.
Robbins waxes so poetic about the humble beet that I was immediately, deeply, passionately in love with them. Even if I’d hated them (I didn’t) I’d still have been in love with the idea of the beet. It’s funny. He doesn’t really point out any profound detail about their history, or their nutritional value, it’s just that he uses beautifully vivid language to romanticize them and use them for a metaphor for something bigger. Nothing changed about the reality of beets, but the way I picture them was forever altered.
“The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious.
Slavic peoples get their physical characteristics from potatoes, their smoldering inquietude from radishes, their seriousness from beets.
The beet is the melancholy vegetable, the one most willing to suffer. You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip…
The beet is the murderer returned to the scene of the crime. The beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot. The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon-boat stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once connected the moon to the Earth now a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies.
The beet was Rasputin’s favorite vegetable. You could see it in his eyes.” ― Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume
Perhaps one of my favorite ways to prepare (and preserve) beets, is to pickle them. There’s something about adding vinegary acidity to their earthy sweetness that just elevates them.
You can pickle your own easily enough, but pickled beets are increasingly easy to find at the grocery store these days too. My own stash from this summer has already run dry, so for this recipe I bought some locally produced beets pickled with fennel.
One of my favorite ways to enjoy pickled beets is to pair them with other sweet, earthy, robust flavors in a bright filling salad. If you want to make this salad feel even more substantial, just top it with some thinly sliced grilled steak or seared chicken breast.
There’s nothing about this salad that isn’t amazing. Peppery fresh arugula, acidic sweet and earthy pickled beets, creamy earthy crumbled goat cheese, bright juicy pomegranate seeds, crunchy buttery cashews, and pungent yet delicate sliced shallot; all tied together with a quick and easy homemade balsamic vinaigrette. It doesn’t get any better than this y’all.
Pickled Beet and Arugula Salad with Goat Cheese and Balsamic Vinaigrette
3/4 cup pickled beets (cut into bite-size pieces if not already packed that way)
Seeds of 1/2 a fresh pomegranate (about 1/2 cup) *see note
1 cup toasted cashews
1 small shallot, thinly sliced
2.5 oz crumbled goat cheese (about 1/3 cup)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon honey
salt and pepper to taste
To make the dressing, combine all ingredients in a dressing shaker or small bowl and shake or whisk vigorously until well combined. Set aside.
Combine all salad ingredients in a large bowl and gently toss with about half the dressing. Try not to completely mix in the goat cheese or it’ll kind of just disappear. If you’re happy with the amount of dressing, you’re done. Otherwise, add a bit more until you’re satisfied, and gently toss again. Divide between serving bowls or plates and enjoy.
Any extra salad dressing should last several weeks tightly covered in the refrigerator.
My favorite way to get the seeds out of a pomegranate is to cut one in half, firmly grasp one half cut side down over a large bowl in one hand, while firmly whacking the skin side of the pomegranate with a wooden spoon held in the other hand. It may take a few good whacks to loosen the seeds, but they’ll eventually start falling out with each coming whack. You’ll need to rotate the pomegranate as you go so all sides get their fair share of abuse, and once all the seeds are removed you’ll want to pick through them to remove any stray yellow membrane that fell out with the seeds.