This fabulous print from 1907 is available from Studiobotanika
Beets are a member of the Amaranthaceae family that includes chard, spinach beet and sugar beet (and here I thought they were related to turnips). They have been cultivated since the 2nd millennium BC, beginning in the Mediterranean and moved through Babylonia, reaching China by 850AD.
I read that 4 charred beetroots were found in ruins in a Neolithic site in the Netherlands (they were smaller than our modern cultivated variety). The earliest mention of beets is in 8th century BC Mesopotamia.
I have one absolutely favorite beet dish: beet gnocchi.
Gnocchi have an ancient history as well. The theory is that gnocchi originated in the Middle East and were brought to Europe by the Romans where they were made with a “porridge-like” egg dough according to Wikipedia. The potato addition is fairly recent since it didn’t happen till potatoes were brought from the New World in the 16th century. Gnocchi exist in Italy, France, Sardinia and Croatia in various forms. The word may come from nocchio (knot) or nocca (knuckle).
Until a few years ago, I wouldn’t ever have made it. Why? My first attempt at gnocchi was so abysmal that I didn't try it again for 20-odd years. Yes, they were that bad. My great friend Pierre teased me about that gnocchi for years. Being a well-brought up Brit, when he said it he said the word “Gnocchi” it would often sound like Edith Evans pronouncing “A Haaaaandbaaaaag?” in Importance of Being Ernest”. I called them “gnucky”. They were horrid death-balls –so tough as to be inedible, tasting of glue. No sauce could have saved these dough-demons.
As years have gone by, I’ve had wonderful Italian cooks generously show me the ways of gnocchi. I realized the error of my ways had a lot to do with working the dough too much… gnocchi doesn’t like to be manhandled. No matter how many times great and kind teachers tried to push me back to the gnocchi table…. I would not go. I felt like a horse that shied at a jump and would not take it.
Then, one day I found this recipe (I think it was Food & Wine but I am not certain... it’s written in my black book). It seemed to address my biggest issue about making gnocchi. The recipe was mostly ricotta and not too much flour. There was no way they could be death-balls. When I made them, they were polar opposite of a death-ball… they were fluffy pink clouds of flavor. Since taking the plunge successfully, I have made many gnocchi from many different ingredients and they have been delicious, but this is still my favorite. Over time I have added things… the last being the hint of rose which makes them so sexy if a dough cloud can be sexy –– something about that pink just asked for rose. It is marvelous with beets. You can’t beat the color, can you –– so pink!
Beet Gnocchi serves 6
1 med-large beet or 3 small beets (around ¾ c grated) **
1 lb ricotta (drained for a day- this you MUST do)
1 -2 drops Aftellier Rose Essence or 1-2 t rosewater (optional)* if you are worried people may not like it, add the rose to some of the butter sauce and leave the rest plain.
1 c Parmesan cheese
2/3 c flour (plus extra for dusting)
pinch of salt (the parmesan is salty)
grating of nutmeg
½ t ground pepper
8 T butter (you may want more if you like butter)
10 sage leaves
1t poppy seeds
extra Parmesan for grating while serving
Wrap the beets in foil. Bake beets at 425º 45 minutes to an hour until tender, peel and grate.
Beat the egg, add ricotta, rose, nutmeg and Parmesan and stir well, add the beets and mix thoroughly then sprinkle the flour (and salt and pepper) and mix gently… do not over-handle or the dough will be heavy… you want pink clouds. Ideally, refrigerate for 2 hours (I have made them immediately after –– although harder to work with, they turn out splendidly). You can boil up a sample at this point and check for seasonings.
Flour your work surface liberally. Roll out handfuls into cigar-width lengths, about 12” long
Cut the dough into 1” pieces. Take each one, flatten it slightly over the tip of your finger and roll a fork over it to give it grooves (this helps it hold butter sauce better ––the Italians have a cool grooved board that is used for this). Then gently roll it into a cylinder shape –– this will make it slightly hollow so it is lighter… no death-balls this way! Some people roll the dough around a tube, roll on the grooved board and then cut them and roll them, to give the hollow. Others just cut them and use them as is. Don't make them too big if you do it this way as they won't cook properly. You can refrigerate these placed on a well-floured sheet, covered, or use them immediately… or freeze them.
Boil in batches in water. After they rise to the surface, let boil a minute or 2 longer (best to try a sample and see what you like for texture) at a low boil and remove to a warm platter and cover. If you cook them too long they will dissolve.
Warm the butter and fry the sage leaves in it (I like my butter browned a bit). Add the gnocchi and warm them. Serve with additional Parmesan for sprinkling on the top with the poppy seeds.
** I am often asked if I want my beet tops cut off and tossed. This is a crime. They are delicious and nutritious and like getting two vegetables for one…. Sometimes even 3 vegetables since some people do the stems and leaves separately. You can serve the tops alongside the gnocchi if you wish or with a salad ( I like arugula with it).
Here's a quick treat for beet stems (you can add some of the leaves too). Saute them in butter till softened, spoon a little harissa on them and wrap them in bacon, microwave wrapped in paper toweling (from 1 1/2 min. for 1 piece upwards... depends on how many you do at once) and you have a delicious treat. This one was 3 small pieces wrapped in 1/2 piece of bacon. You can add a shmear of goat cheese or feta to the inside if you would like.
PS. I am off to do a movie so will miss a few posts and won't be able to visit blogs as much as I would like.