Sunday, December 14, 2008

The ABCs of Everyday French Cuisine 2: B for betterave

I bet you never thought of beets as a dangerous vegetable. But they can be treacherous indeed, as I learned when I was studying for my French driver's license test. In Northern France where they are cultivated, apparently they somehow (I've often wondered how) get squished on the road and can make driving a slippery affair.

This latent risk put aside, French beets are quite user-friendly. Unless, of course, you want to buy them raw and cook them yourself.

I've only done this once, to make a borscht that I thought would be extra-fantastic because I had spent hours boiling beets before actually making the dish. The results were inconclusive: sure, the borscht was yummy but I have made equally yummy borscht with beets sold in this format:

As far as I know, this is the most popular way to buy beets in France: pre-cooked and vacuum-packed. The "cook" just has to open the package-- very carefully unless she or he wants bright pink beet juice all over the kitchen -- and then cut the beets up for their most frequent use: in a salad as a starter:

(Flickr photo courtesy of bloggyboulga)

I don't happen to have any photos of my takes on the ever-popular betteraves vinaigrette, but the salad above, featuring pine nuts, capers and parmesan, looks like something I might try.

By now you've picked up on the basic idea: beets are generally served cold in France.

Other nice things to perk up a beet salad are:

  • walnuts
  • raisins
  • Roquefort cheese
  • lots of fresh parsley
  • crumbled hard-boiled eggs (oeufs mimosa)
  • fromage blanc or yogurt to replace the usual vinaigrette
The above explains just about everything I've ever done with beets in France, except for the apotheosis of my beet-preparing experience: betteraves marbrées.

I must admit I had never been prouder of what I had done to a beet:

I can't find the recipe anymore, but know it was taken from an issue of Régal magazine, which apparently doesn't have a website. It involved slicing the whole cooked beets -- very carefully -- and layering them with a ricotta-based filling, then topping them with pesto and finishing off with a drizzle of olive oil.

I haven't repeated this beet tour de force since September 2006.

It's just so darn easy to open those packets, hack up the beets, and toss them with vinaigrette and whatever else is on hand.


tut-tut said...

Wow; that beet has been elevated to Himalayan heights! Feta is also good with beets.

Elisabeth said...

I genuinely think that red beets are dreadful. My father used to make red beet salad about once a week (as an appetizer) and, although I always politely ate it, I deeply disliked it.

I have to admit, though, that I had a rather nice red beet soup (not a borscht) last April at a vegeterian cafe in Berkeley, CA.

christina said...

Mmm, lovely. German beets also come packaged that way and I've been meaning to make a borscht for ages. Just not sure anyone around here except me would eat it.

Le laquet said...

I love beetroot - roasted with carrots as a vegetable side-dish, pickled (our local supermarket do a posh pickled beetroot that is dipped and then taken out of chili vinegar - double yum!), borscht, shredded raw into salads anyway you can imagine and Beteraves vinaigrette is pretty much my favourite French beetrooty salad!

spacedlaw said...

You can also buy them ready cooked at some stalls on the market (if the seller is a producer, for instance) as very few people are ready to face the stink that involves cooking raw beet.
I got spoiled by such a seller when I grew up. Not only were his beets very nice but they were also perfectly cooked, both tender and very sweet.

Betty C. said...

tut-tut: I'm not sure I've ever tried feta with beets -- good idea.

Elisabeth -- My father refused to eat them cold in France, but he will eat them hot. We just heated them up!

Christina -- I guess it's a European thing.

Le laquet -- oh yes, they're beetroot in British. I'll remember that now.

spaced - -I've seen them that way at a few greengrocers' and bought them like that, although I kind of wonder how legal it is from the sanitary point of view. I haven't seen so many lately - - could that be why?

Ken Broadhurst said...

At our Intermarché, there's a wooden crate of cooked beets with a big meat fork nearby. You pick a beet, stab it with the fork, and drop it into a plastic bag. That way you don't get your fingers all red. And I think those beets are much better than the ones that are shrink-wrapped. I love red beets cut into cubes and sauced with a shallot vinaigrette.

But some people just detest red beets. One American friend of ours thought she hated them but she had only had them out of tins in America. Once she tried fresh ones, she changed her mind.

Those betteraves on the roadside warning signs are not red beets, but sugar beets. I don't know if red beets are cultivated on such a massive scale.

Betty C. said...

Ken -- I've never seen the beets presented that way in a regular supermarket. Interesting.

And of course I KNOW those are sugar beets now that I think about it -- but I won't change my post -- I just think those beet signs are so funny. I had to study up on them for my French driving exam, along with boar crossings!

spacedlaw said...

Well certainly, once cooked they have to be kept in a cold environment and should be sold within the day.
French have a somewhat relaxed attitude when sanitary measures are concerned (but they are not fools nevertheless). The importance is the goodness of the product.

Cassoulet Cafe said...

When we were in France this year, my French aunt made a dish with beets (precooked like the ones shown) with tuna, sweet white onions and vinaigrette. I am not a beet lover, but it was incredible! I've since made it here.

And I knew beets were dangerous to some people who forget they ate them....thinking they were bleeding to death...ahem....but i never knew about the warning signs on the road!!! Only in France :)

Ken Broadhurst said...

On my blog tomorrow, I am going to post a picture of cooked beets as they are sold at our local Intermarché supermarket. I think they are probably sanitary — I've never had food poisoning after eating them. Fact is, it is pretty chilly in the produce section at Intermarché.

Ken Broadhurst said...

My link in the comment above doesn't work. Try this one.

peaches said...

I need to get a French driving license soon. I have heard that the written test is quite tricky. How did you prepare for it?

peaches said...

I need to get a French driving license soon. I have heard that the written test is tricky. How did you study for it, and how did you find it?

eleonora said...

Je passe pour vous souhaiter mes vœux par ce petit message, car je vais être absente pendant les fêtes.

Noël se nourrira de miel, de brioche et de lumière
Nous tremperons dans le bon café chaud la bûche
A la belle saveur de crème vanille et chocolat
Mille flocons de sucre glace tombent aux quatre coins de l’hiver
Et la maisonnée rêve à tous tes cadeaux, beau Père Noël.
Pour cette nouvelle année, Je n'ai que quelques vœux à formuler : La joie, le bonheur, l'amour et, bien sûr, la santé !
Que ces jours de festivités vous enveloppent de joie de vivre ! Et, que celle-ci se poursuive tout au long des mois qui viendront égayer vos jours de soleil.
Joyeux Noël,
Bonne et Heureuse année 2009 !

Loulou said...

I love them, especially mixed with soft goat cheese or feta and a nice vinaigrette.
This reminds me that I haven't bought them in ages. They'll have to go on my next shopping list!

sherin said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.