We plant beets in the garden in early spring. The first thinnings are one of the greens in our salads, later the slightly larger thinnings are sautéed with garlic as a side dish. The first harvest of the beets is just about completed and I was pleased to use them in a new way. We chose a Middle Eastern theme for the Sunday cookout and I learned from popular London chef and cookbook author, Yotam Ottolenghi, that beets have a strong presence in the cuisine in every ethnic group in Jerusalem. My first thoughts went to borscht, the hearty Eastern European soup often identified with the Jewish community made with beets and other root vegetables. In this recipe, Ottolenghi purees them to make the very delicious za’atar spiced beet dip with goat cheese and hazelnuts.
Za’atar is a Middle Eastern spice blend composed of dried thyme, sesame seeds and sumac. Though I’m sure everyone is familiar with the first two, sumac is a spice most of us are not acquainted with. When you say sumac to me, my arms develop a rash and start to itch and my first thoughts turn to poison sumac. Until recently all the “poisons,” oak, ivy and sumac were classified under the genus, Rhus, along with the varieties of sumac that do not cause skin rashes. In recent years the “poisonous three” were moved to a different genus, Toxicodendron, Latin for the word “poison tree”.
So on to sumac, it was first used by the Romans for it’s sour flavor before the arrival of lemons from Asia. Sumac is a decorative bush that thrives in the temperate and sub tropical climates of the Middle East and southern Europe. The dark purple berries are dried and ground have a fruity astringent taste. Along with dried thyme, sesame seeds (toasted or not), salt and with the occasional addition of marjoram, oregano or cumin, they compose this versatile, fragrant spice blend.
When it comes to cooking beets, my method of choice is always roasting, I think it brings out the sweetness in any root vegetable. Just scrub your beets very well, no need to peel now, cut off the root and stem ends, you can use the greens separately. Take a large piece of heavy duty aluminum foil and place the beets in the center. A sprinkle of salt, a little drizzle of olive oil, wrap them up securely, place on a baking sheet in case of drippings and into a 350°F oven they go. My beets are always different sizes, I check after the first hour and any that can be pierced easily with the tip of a knife are removed from the foil. Then back into the oven for the larger ones until all are ready. Once sufficiently cooled, the skin peels off easily with your now pink fingers. If that is an issue for you, I suggest rubber gloves! The beets are cut into manageable wedges along with garlic, a small hot pepper, I chose a tiny Thai pepper that provided all the heat I wanted, creamy plain non fat Greek yogurt, a little real maple syrup and the za’atar. A sprinkling of toasted hazelnuts and a little goat cheese “gild the lily” and make for a vibrantly colored, delicious dip to enjoy with raw vegetables or pita chips.
Za’atar-Spiced Beet Dip with Goat Cheese and Hazelnuts
Adapted slightly from Food and Wine Magazine Sept 2012
Makes 3 cups
- 6 medium beets (1 1/2lbs) trimmed
- 2 small garlic cloves, minced
- 1 small red chile, seeded and minced
- 1c plain Greek yogurt
- 3T extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 1/2T pure maple syrup
- 1T za’atar
- 1/4c roasted skinned hazelnuts, chopped
- 2T goat cheese, crumbled
- Raw vegetables or chips for serving
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Wrap the beets securely in foil and bake for about an hour, until beets are tender. Let cool slightly.
- Peel the beets, cut into wedges and transfer to a food processor. Add the garlic, chile, yogurt and pulse until blended. Add the olive oil, maple syrup and za’atar and puree. Season with salt to taste. Scrape into a wide, shallow bowl. Scatter the hazelnuts and goat cheese on top and serve with raw vegetables or pita chips.