I know many readers are beet lovers (because you’ve told me!), so here’s a recipe you root vegetable enthusiasts will enjoy. I, too, am crazy about beets. I also appreciate having healthy, delicious dips and snacking foods at the ready, and this beautiful ruby-colored spread will keep several days, refrigerated, for enjoying guilt-free and at random.
The recipe was from Yotam Ottolenghi, an Israeli-born chef, writer, and cookbook author who explains that beets have a strong presence in the cuisine of almost every ethnic group in Jerusalem. According to Wikipedia, the beet has a long history of cultivation stretching back to the second millennium BC. The plant was likely domesticated along the Mediterranean, then later spread to Babylonia by the 8th century BC and as far east as China by 850 AD.
I found the scrumptious recipe on the Food and Wine website, but did take a couple of shortcuts, which I offer, plus suggestions on other substitutions you may take if so inclined.
Za’atar, one of the the primary seasonings in the recipe, is a popular Middle Eastern spice blend. As garam masala is to Asian cuisine, so za’atar is to Middle Eastern. I’m sure there are thousands of variations on the mixture that vary from country to town to village to family.
Ideally, make your own za’atar by combining dried thyme or oregano with ground sesame seeds, sumac, cayenne and kosher salt in proportions to suit your palate. Don’t forget the sumac, which lends that inimitable sour component, essential to the best za’atar blends. My first shortcut was purchasing a za’atar blend at Mediterranean Market on Stone School and Ellsworth. If you don’t have time to make your own blend, and would prefer not purchasing another seasoning to clutter your pantry, substitute dried thyme with a pinch of cayenne. It won’t be the same, but will lend some of the flavor components.
You may, however, find it a useful blend for dressing up a dish on a whim. For instance, I mixed it with garlic and olive oil and liberally rubbed it over the boneless leg of lamb I recently roasted. The herbaceous seasoning with notes of sour was a delightful marriage with the slight gaminess of the lamb. Or, for a signature cracker, cut pita bread into triangles, brush with olive oil and sprinkle with the spice rub. Bake in a 350 degree oven until crispy and you’ll have a perfect cracker for enjoying favorite Middle Eastern spreads, such as hommos, tzadziki or baba ganoush.
While at the Mediterranean Market, I also purchased small pita bread, hot from their ovens, that were a marvelous complement to the dip. I imagine fresh cut vegetables surrounding the vibrant rosy spread would be a feast for the eyes, as well as your palate.
Beets that you roasted yourself would be best pureed into the spread. Available time, however, insisted I take a second shortcut in the recipe by using Melissa’s cooked and peeled beets, which I prefer to the flavor of shelf-stable beets that are bottled or canned. I purchased them in the refrigerated produce section at Trader Joe’s, but have seen them at Whole Foods. If you’ve the time, roast fresh whole beets, washed and trimmed, in a roasting pan with a bit of water until tender. Make sure you save the savory beet greens for a salad.
The original recipe calls for garnishing with sliced scallions, which I omitted. You may also substitute red pepper flakes to taste for the red chili pepper.
The crunch of earthy hazelnuts lends marvelous texture to the dip, but skinning hazelnuts can be a messy hassle. I could have taken yet another shortcut and used toasted chopped almonds, but I’ve been taking enough liberties with this lovely recipe. To remove skins from hazelnuts, I rub them together in a cloth while they are still warm. I’m not too neurotic about getting every last bit of skin off the nuts — it didn’t make a difference in the following recipe. If you know where I can purchase skinned hazelnuts, or have an easier way to get off the skins, I’m all ears.