Roasted beets and goat cheese… A more perfect flavor combination is hard to imagine. The intense sweetness of the roasted beets balances perfectly the tangy goat cheese, sending my taste buds straight to their own personal happy place.
I have had a thing for beets since I was very young. My parents used to take my brother and me to a little local mom-and-pop buffet restaurant called “The Swedish Kitchen.” I have no idea whether it was legitimately Swedish, aside from a smattering of meatballs and “Swedish pancakes” for dessert — a dessert I now refer to as crêpes.
But nestled among the suspiciously American dishes like barbequed beef ribs, meatloaf and chicken noodle soup was a beet salad of canned, matchstick-sliced beets mixed with whipped cream… that is, Cool Whip.
Oh, the horror, oh the delight.
I adored that salad, and ate it until my taste buds reached Beet Nirvana. Add in a beef rib or two and a nice helping of “Swedish pancakes” and I was a very happy 10 year old.
My romance with beets stayed at that casual puppy-love level until I moved to England in my 20s. There it blossomed into what can only be described as an intense obsession, fueled by the fact that the Brits are full-on beet maniacs themselves. Any British supermarket stocks fresh beets in their produce section, but also cooked beets in the refrigerated salad section in a variety of flavors: plain, sweet chili, juniper berries and malt vinegar and balsamic, just to name a few.
It was also during my tenure in London that I discovered the true magic that manifests from slowly roasting beets drizzled in olive oil and various herbs. Roasting beets intensifies their flavor to such a point that no boiled beet can ever hope to rival. The slow roasting process also draws out the natural sugars in the beets which caramelize on the bottom of the roasting pan. When that sugar melts together with flaky sea salt and freshly chopped sage leaves, Mamma Mia! the flavor is nothing short of glorious.
6 large fresh beets
3 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale*
3-4 Tbsp finely chopped fresh basil
1 Tbsp finely chopped fresh mint
2 Tbsp first-pressed, extra virgin olive oil
3-4 oz plain goat cheese
freshly ground black pepper
*A note on vinegars: This recipe calls for 3 Tbsp of regular balsamic vinegar — which is the common type you can easily find in any store. It’s more of a wine/water consistency when shaken, and has a tart, sharp flavor normally associated with vinegar. Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is the more syrupy version of balsamic that’s sometimes drizzled on desserts or fruit. It’s sweeter and has been aged longer, and looks more like a thick syrup when shaken. If you’d like to read more about balsamic vinegars, this is a great article.
Top tip: check out your local TJ Maxx, Ross or Marshall’s for balsamico tradizionale and quality olive oil.
To start, I highly encourage you to take the time to roast your own fresh beets, though in a pinch, canned whole beets will do (skip down to the salad instructions). If they are large they’ll probably take 2-3 hours to cook through, but they need very little attention. Top and tail your beets (cut off the top beet greens and the small root at the bottom) and scrub them under cold water, ensuring any remaining dirt is rinsed off. Don’t peel off the skins as they keep the beet flesh moist as they cook and help to seal in the flavor. Stab the beets with a small knife a few times all the way around, then scatter them in a roasting pan, drizzle with olive oil and toss them to make sure every inch of the skins are evenly coated. Sprinkle with some good quality salt (you can add herbs if you like, but only thick, hardy herbs like sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano or marjoram) and slide into a pre-heated oven at 350f (190c).
As all ovens are different, check your beets around the 45min mark and see how soft they are getting. If you’re able to slide a fork almost into the center, you don’t have far to go, but if they still seem a little hard, you can likely leave them for another hour or more. When they’re soft all the way through, take them out and allow them to cool to room temperature.
If you’re like me, it will take enormous personal strength to keep from eating the purple beauties at this stage, but it’s worth it to hold out!
Time to peel the beets. Usually the skins will slide right off after a little encouraging beet massage, otherwise use a small knife to very carefully loosen a bit of the skin and slowly pull it off in strips. They don’t have to be perfectly skinned – in fact, sometimes I’ll slice up the skins very fine and add them to the salad.
Next, grate your beets into a bowl with a large, course cheese grater, add the mint and basil, vinegars and oil and stir, evenly distributing everything. Taste, then begin to stir through a little salt at a time until you feel it’s properly seasoned, then grind some pepper into the salad, or add 1/2 tsp of ground black pepper.
Time to add that delicious goat cheese. I’m using the little 3.5 oz goat cheese packages sold at Trader Joe’s, but any crumbly, soft goat cheese will work. I encourage plain goat cheese because this salad is already brimming with flavor. Gently crumble the cheese into the salad, then lightly stir to disperse without smashing up the crumbles.
Serve with an extra drizzle each of balsamico tradizionale and olive oil, garnish with a couple whole mint leaves and indulge in the sweet, tangy saltiness of each delicious bite.