The modern beet descends from the ancient sea beet. News that thrilled my inner biologist.
Imagine the sea beet, swimming the Indian Ocean. It must have slithered the depths, dodging eels, sharks and other toothy creatures attracted to its plump, red tastiness. Frantic, it fluttered its green leafy fins toward the shallows, and in an act of evolutionary heroism, sprouted legs, skittered across the sand and planted itself safely on earth -- where we farmers tended and, much like the sharks, downed the plump, red land beet.
All of this flashed across my brain screen before I read, in sentence two of beet history, that sea beets grew near the water, not in it.
Accuracy aside, I'm still fond of the sea-dwelling beet and its land-dwelling descendant, especially when roasted, grated and tossed with mint, chive and lemon. The combo makes for a bright spring salad, one that's just as good in fact as in fantasy.
SPRING BEET SALAD
6 fresh beets
6 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
6 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
6 teaspoons lemon zest
3 teaspoons chopped preserved lemon, optional
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
6 teaspoons olive oil
3 teaspoons lemon juice
Roast: Scrub beets, trim stems to 1 inch, leave tails intact. Settle beets in a baking pan. Add a splash of water (just enough to cover the bottom of the pan). Cover pan with foil; slide into a 400-degree oven, and roast beets until tender when poked with a skewer (or toothpick or fork), about 1 hour.
Grate: When beets are cool enough to handle, snap on disposable gloves. Lop off tops and tails; slip off skins. Set a box grater on a rimmed baking sheet and grate beets through the large holes. Scoop grated beets into a bowl.
Season: Scatter beets with mint, chives and lemon zest. If you have some preserved lemon lurking in the back of the fridge, pull out a wedge, strip away the flesh, rinse the rind, chop it and add it. Season salad with salt and pepper. (Go easy on the salt if you're using the preserved lemon, which can be salty.)
Serve: Dress the beet salad with oil and lemon juice. Toss with a fork. Enjoy room temperature or cold.
Makes: 6 servings.