I’ve only learned on my Facebook stream how many people would rather stay hungry than eat beets. And this is a nice way of saying it. Inevitably, a few of them have been to my house over the years — in fact, just recently a friend was part of this distinct group of beet avoiders. During all the chatter of kids and adults around our big table, I heard him twice mumble and ask how I made the beets. His wife was quick to add that he doesn’t really like them, no, not at all. Meanwhile, this nice man emptied the remaining chunks of my beet salad onto his plate.
It was in this moment that I realized he had been won over by my Greek grandma’s exquisite recipe. I’m now convinced my yiayia created her salad for all the folks who think they hate beets.
I feel lucky that I never had to overcome this kind of beet bias, because this super-easy summer salad was so often on our table that I didn’t even realize how special it was. It was part of my Greek grandma’s appetizer spread, then my mom’s and today mine. It is the easiest of all salads. It always hits the spot. And it can and should be made ahead. What’s not to like? Plus, it cooks the vegetable in an old-fashioned way: on the stovetop. Who wants to turn on the oven during the heat of summer anyways?
Now that I built up all this suspense, you will look at the ingredient list and wonder: really? That’s it? Yes, that’s it. This salad is four-ingredient marvelous (not counting salt and pepper). Even the parsley is optional. You could also opt for fresh dill. This is Greek home cooking at its best: earthy beets are completely transformed by skillfully adding just a few ingredients for an irresistible sweet bite on your fork. Try it and tell me.
Given the few ingredients, be sure to use the best olive oil and vinegar you can afford. I always make 2 bunches of beets because I never like to waste my time, and I appreciate leftovers. This salad lasts in the fridge for at least 3 days. Just bring it to room temperature for best flavor and refresh it with a drizzle of vinegar if you like. My Greek yiayia would have used her everyday red wine vinegar. I like the gentle dry sweetness Sherry vinegar with 6% acidity. I have made it just as often with golden or balsamic vinegar.
My Greek Grandmother’s Beet Salad
Serves 8 as an appetizer or 4 as a light summer supper, topped with slices of sheep’s milk feta and good quality whole grain bread or baguette
2 bunches of medium beet roots (6 pieces), about 2 1/4 pounds
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons best-quality extra-virgin olive oil, more to taste
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar, more to taste
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley or dill (optional)
1 Start 1 day ahead, or at least 4 hours: Cut off the green leaves, leaving about 1 inch at the base and use them in a different meal (see below). I don’t remove the roots tips (which look a bit like a tail) to avoid bleeding the beet flavor into the water. Brush the beets well under cold running water.
2 Place the beets in a large pot, fitting them in snugly. Add enough water to just cover the roots (the tops will still show). Add a good pinch of salt and bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and cook, covered, until the beets are tender (a pairing knife should slide out easily), 40 to 60 minutes, depending on size. Check and remove smaller beets as they are done.
3 Transfer the beets to a large plate or cutting board (if you don’t mind the stains!). When they are cool enough to handle, rub off the skins (you can wear gloves if you like but I never bother — the stains come off easily), and trim the top and the bottom.
4 Cut the beets into wedges or chunks and add them to a large lidded container. I like to cut them in half lengthwise, then each half into 5 or 6 wedges. Add the garlic and drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and 2 tablespoons of the vinegar. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and at least 1/4 teaspoon pepper, or to taste. Stir to combine well, cover, and chill overnight to allow flavors to mingle. If you remember, stir the ingredients once or twice in between or give the container a good shaking.
5 About 1 hour before you want to serve the beets, remove from the fridge. Just before serving, taste for seasonings and adjust salt and pepper. At this point, I drizzle on the remaining 1 tablespoon vinegar which brings the flavors together and freshens up the beets for a nice glossy look. Sometimes, I add a bit more oil as well. There is no science here – just taste and adjust. That’s how I learned to make this salad. Transfer to a deep bowl, sprinkle with parsley and serve, quietly.
I always look for beets with their green leaves attached. The leaves should look fresh. The leaves and stems essentially give you a meal for free (see below). Many people prize smaller beetroots for their sweeter flavor. But this is not always the case, so I typically get medium-sized bulbs which is less labor-intensive.
Eat the stems
As in so many leafy greens, from chard to kale, the stems of beets are a sweet delicacy — take my word for it. Don’t toss them out. Chop them and sauté them either together with onions when you start a soup or vegetable stir-fry.
Make a warm leaf salad
Once you’ve cooked the roots, as in step 2, you can add the leaves with their stems attached to the cooking liquid and briefly simmer them until wilted, about 3 minutes. Remove the leaves with a slotted spoon, drain them in a sieve, and spread on a platter. Drizzle with olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon juice and season with salt and pepper for a delicious warm or room temperature salad. Don’t expect the leaves to be bright green (chef-style) but darkish with a red hue which I find quite beautiful (home-style).
Roasting or boiling
Many recipes advocate roasting beets in the oven to coax out the most flavor and preserve their sweetness. I not only find turning on the oven in the summer prohibitive. I simply haven’t succeeded with it. I stick with my yiayia’s easy and foolproof method of simply boiling them in water. And my beets are just as sweet.
What I do with the beet “juice”
You can use the naturally sweet liquid as a base for tomato-based soups and sauces. Or you can drink it, still warm, or chill it in the summer. It’s a treat either way! I’ve learned this from my mom. Furthermore, this juice is adaptable: for a sweet drink, add 1 teaspoon of maple syrup or honey per 1 cup of liquid, or to taste. A good pinch of fine sea salt makes for a savory refreshment. And a squeeze of fresh lemon works wonders in both versions. The deep crimson red drink looks beautiful in a tall glass — just don’t spill it!