Pasta, Vegetables

Just beet it.

I don’t recall ever eating beets as a kid. This may have been a chicken-egg situation – like most kids I was driven to eat the familiar, so perhaps my mom decided to play the odds and stay away from beets. As an adult I don’t know why I ever would have objected. Beetroot is mild and sweet, and the leaves delicate, more so than spinach.

Beets and spinach are part of the same plant family, Amaranthaceae. If the word amaranth brings to mind houseplants with ruffly, vivid, pink-red and green leaves, that’s because they’re part of the same family. Quinoa, a nutritional superstar, is not a grain, like many believe, but the seed of another member of the family. Beetroot, spinach, quinoa, and chard used to be separately classified from other amaranths, in a family called Chenopodiaceae, or, literally, “goosefeet,” named for their fleshy, ribbed leaves. Indeed, beet greens are not only edible but delicious. Swiss chard (or silverbeet) is a variant of beet specifically cultivated for its mild greens, but if you buy fresh beets with the tops attached, you can enjoy both the root and the leaves.

The famously vivid color of beets and chard stems is due to pigments collectively called betalains. The betacyanins lend red to purple hues; betaxanthins show off bright yellow, gold, and orange. As anyone who’s ever prepared beets knows, these pigments can end up all over the kitchen, your hands, and your clothes – beet cells are unstable and prone to leakage when cut, heated, or exposed to air. Add red beets to any dish and you can expect it to emerge brilliantly pink or purple.

Roasted beet salad with walnuts and Maytag blue

Golden beets – colored by betaxanthins – are no less vivid than their deep red counterparts. They do tend to taste milder and somewhat less “dirty” because of lower levels of geosmin, the compound that lends the earthy, dirty flavor to beets.

Golden beetroot.

I used golden beets for this salad (to avoid problems with the ravioli later), but the typical red beet works perfectly. You can obtain spectacular results using Chioggia beets, an heirloom variety that, when sliced across the equator, displays a many-ringed bullseye.

In my opinion, the best way to prepare cooked beets is to roast them whole, in a foil package, at about 400F/205C, for about 45-60 minutes depending on the size of the beet. Drizzle the beet with a little oil before roasting. The steam from the beets softens the peel – once the beet is cooked through, the peel is easy to remove with a paring knife.

4 beets, scrubbed well, greens removed and reserved
2 ounces Maytag Blue or other blue cheese, cut into very small wedges or crumbled
2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) shelled walnuts, broken
2 c arugula, washed and spun dry
2 tbsp sherry vinegar
3 tbsp olive oil plus extra for roasting
Salt and pepper

Oven 400F/205C.

Drizzle the beets with a little oil before roasting. Place in aluminum foil and fold the foil over, sealing the sides to form a loose envelope. It is not necessary to form a perfect package. Roast for about 45-60 minutes depending on the size of the beet. At the last five to ten minutes of roasting, place the walnuts on a sheet pan and roast on a separate rack until golden. Remove from the oven.

Once the beets are tender to the center, remove from the oven and cool the beets. Remove with a paring knife or peel with your fingers (a paring knife may yield cleaner results and spare you the stained fingers).

Cut each beet into eighths and toss lightly with about 1 tbsp of the sherry vinegar. Arrange the wedges on individual plates, or on one large platter, along with the Maytag Blue and toasted walnuts. In a bowl, place the remaining tablespoon of sherry vinegar, a pinch of salt, and a little black pepper. Slowly drizzle the oil into the vinegar to form an emulsion. Dress the arugula and add it to the plates.

Finish with sea salt and pepper.

Golden beet, Maytag blue, walnut, arugula.

Beet green ravioli

I always roll out pasta sheets by hand using a French pin (just a really long, tapered rolling pin). I enjoy the exertion and find that it is possible to achieve a thinner dough by hand-rolling than by using a machine. That said, there’s no shame in using the pasta roller.

Using a pastry wheel to cut the filled pasta sheets into square ravioli results in less scrap dough than using a round biscuit cutter, as I have. The choice is a matter of aesthetics (although square ravioli tend to have a higher ratio of pasta to filling). Don’t worry, the scraps don’t go to waste. I cut them with a knife into small, rough shapes (about 1/2″) called malfatti – literally, badly formed – dry them, cook like regular pasta, and sauce with butter and cheese.

I really recommend using golden beets if you’re going to prepare this dish as part of an all-beet meal. Having developed this dish originally using red beets, I can tell you that the resulting pasta filling assumes an unsettling pink hue, much like Pepto-Bismol. If you aren’t preparing an all-beet meal, substitute Swiss chard for the beet greens.

Beet green, ricotta, pine nut, lemon.

Reserved beet greens from 4 beets or one bunch swiss chard, separated into leaves and stems, and washed very well
1/2 small onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 c ricotta cheese
1 egg white (from pasta below)
2 lemons, zested and juiced
large pinch grated nutmeg
olive oil
salt and black pepper
3 tbsp unsalted butter
1/4 c pine nuts, toasted
flat leaf parsley, washed and dried

2 c/250g/scant 9 ounces “00” flour or King Arthur Italian-style flour; otherwise all-purpose is fine, plus extra for dusting
2 whole large eggs plus one egg yolk
1/4 c water

First make the filling. Stack the chard leaves several at a time, roll tightly, and slice as thinly as possible (chiffonade). Dice the stems about 1/4″ or smaller if you can.

Place a large skillet over medium heat. When hot, add 1 tbsp olive oil. Add the onions and sauté until lightly golden; add the garlic and sauté a minute more until just fragrant. Do not brown. Add the leaves and stems and saute until tender and wilted. Remove from heat and season with lemon juice to taste (a little less than 1 lemon, not much more), salt and pepper, nutmeg, and zest of one lemon. Stir together the ricotta and the egg white. When the beet green or chard sauté is cool, stir in the ricotta. You can make a test quenelle and cook in the microwave to taste for seasoning – adjust by adding more acid, lemon zest, salt, or pepper.

Place the flour in a mound on a large wooden board and form a well in the center. Lightly beat the eggs and egg yolks and add to the well. Using a fork with your dominant hand, stir the eggs while using your other hand to push flour from the pile into the well. Don’t work too fast or the well will break and you’ll find egg everywhere. If the dough is too tough and solid, add a little water.

Once all the flour is incorporated, dust the board with flour and knead the dough until smooth, with the texture of baby skin. If it’s sticky, add more flour to the dough (always keep the board dusted); if it’s too tough to knead, add a little water. Divide the dough into fourths using a sharp knife or bench scraper and cover three of the quarters with a kitchen towel.

Pasta dough.

If you’re using a pasta machine, roll out the sheets. Otherwise, dust the board with flour and roll out the piece of pasta dough using a French pin. Roll from the center out, until you have a uniform sheet about 1/6″ thick. Then continue to roll from the center out to form a thinner and thinner sheet. Once the sheet becomes quite thin focus on making it uniform. It should be thin enough to be translucent and virtually see-through.

Rolled out pasta sheet.

Add the filling, in 2-3 tsp amounts, at intervals depending on the size of the ravioli you intend to make on one half of the sheet. If you cut into squares using a rolling pastry wheel, you will have less waste. You also can stamp using a round cutter (like a biscuit cutter). Fold over the sheet and seal around the filling. Stamp or cut the dough. Once cut, use your fingers to seal again around the edges to ensure they do not leak during cooking. Place on a clean kitchen towel until ready to cook. Repeat with the pasta sheets until finished.

Stamped out ravioli.

Set a pot of salted water to simmer. Add the ravioli and simmer until they float. Unlike dry pasta, which must cook at a rolling boil or it will turn gummy, this fresh ravioli should not boil or it will disintegrate. Drain.

As the ravioli are cooking, place a small skillet over medium high heat and, when hot, add the butter. When it turns golden brown and foamy, add the juice of one lemon and remove from heat. Season with salt. Plate the ravioli (or use one large platter for family-style) and pour the lemon brown butter over all. Garnish with lemon zest, sea salt, parsley, and pine nuts.

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