Did you know that all varieties of beets come from the sea beet, a plant that originally grew along the Mediterranean shore? It doesn’t have much of a root but is more closely related to the chard and only its leaves are eaten. The Greeks are known to have cultivated the plant for more than two millennia but the varieties with bulging edible roots didn’t appear until the 16th century. Of course, from there on it spread quite easily and today beets, in many forms, shapes and colours, are widely available throughout much of the world.
And beets are worth picking up when you see them. Not only are they beautiful, no matter the variety. They’re tasty too.
Beetroots are among those sturdy ingredients who can take on a lot of flavour. They need flavour, lest they become too sweet, at least once cooked. That’s why you’ll often find a lot of vinegar in beetroot salads, for example. But they can also take a lot of spices and heat. And that’s where I’m going today.
I composed this dish for a Norwegian food blogger challenge started by Green Bonanza, one of my favourite Norwegian food blogs. And I dare say I did rather well. Lots of exotic flavours. Punchy heat. Sour. Fresh. And roasted beetroots with a flavour as deep and intense as its colour.
There are a few components to this dish, but it’s actually fairly simple and doesn’t take very long. The beets are mostly left to themselves in the oven. The harissa yoghurt can be mixed in thirty seconds. And the chickpeas need only a few short minutes in the pan. There’s not a lot of chopping, cutting or peeling either. Depending on where you live, the most challenging part may indeed be locating the necessary ingredients.
Za’atar is a spice mix made from different varieties of Middle Eastern wild thyme, sesame seeds, sumac and salt. Check the labelling – you want to avoid varieties with flour and artificial flavourings added if you can. Sumac is the spice made from grinding dried sumac berries, a sour Middle Eastern berry. It was used to add a sour component to dishes before lemons were introduced to the region, but its aromatic characteristics has kept its popularity alive until today. Harissa is a Tunisian chili paste which is used across Northern Africe. It has a depth of flavour few, if any, other chili pastes have. You can make your own http://www.akitcheninistanbul.com/2016/08/harissa-chicken-wings/ or buy it ready made. Be aware that harissa may vary substantially both in heat levels and flavouring (different areas use different spices), so try a few different ones until you find one you like.
If you can’t get these ingredients where you live, search online to find a supplier near you. They’re all more than worthwhile having in your cupboard – I, for one, use them all the time.
I got the idea for this particular dish from BBC Good Food, a fantastic website which, unfortunately, is due to close soon as part of the current UK government’s ongoing “rationalisation” of the British broadcaster’s activities. Use it while you still can. I’ve made a few changes to the recipe to bring out the flavours of each individual element better, but the core of the dish is the same.
Serve this for lunch with some fresh bread, or for dinner with another dish or two on the side. Serves 2-4, depending on what else is on offer.
- 4 medium beetroots (c. 700-800 g), peeled and cut into large chunks
- 3+3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp za’atar (plus more to garnish)
- 1 tbsp sumac
- 400 g yoghurt, preferably greek style
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- 2 tbsp harissa
- 250 g boiled chickpeas (equivalent to 1×400 g tin, drained)
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1/2 tsp sweet paprika
- 1/2 tsp urfa biber or pul biber or 1/4 tsp regular chili flakes (optional)
- 10-15 mint leaves, finely sliced
- salt and pepper
- Prehead the oven to 220 C.
- Mix the beetroots with 3 tbsp olive oil, za’atar, sumac and some salt and pepper. Spread on a roasting tray and leave in the oven until cooked through, around 30 minutes depending on the size of the chunks. I cut the beets in half, then I cut each half into four pieces.
- Make harissa yoghurt by mixing the yoghurt, lemon juice and harissa. Season.
- When the beetroots are nearly done, fry chickpeas in the remaining 3 tbsp olive oil until hot and starting to colour and crisp up on the outside. Add cumin and sweet paprika and cook for another minute. Take off the heat and season if necessary (tinned chickpeas tend to be sufficiently salty already).
- Spread the harissa yoghurt on a serving plate and arrange the beetroot and chickpeas on top. Garnish with some extra za’atar, the chili flakes and mint leaves.
- Use disposable gloves when peeling and cutting the beetroots and don’t wear your fancy new white shirts. Beetroots do have a lot of colour.
Source: Davidson, Allan: The Oxford Companion to Food, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press 2006