A successful hunt for the world’s best beet recipe.

Blood on the Snow: Beet Up: A mound of coarse salt cradles the red root.

FOOD&WINE fall05

My instructions were cryptic yet clear: figure out how to make a roasted beet dish that was briefly mentioned in the recent food issue of the New Yorker. The beet in question was prepared, I was told, by some chef in France.

Finding the magazine was easy, and inside I found the article, Two Cooks, by Adam Gopnik. One of the cooks featured was London’s Fergus Henderson, who specializes in the “Whole Beast” style of cooking, in which all of the innards and unlikely extremities of wild or carefully raised domestic animals are exquisitely prepared into dishes like Pigs’ Ear Soup, Ox Hearts With Pickled Walnuts, Rolled Spleens, and such. The other of the two cooks featured in Gopnik’s piece was the French creator of the roasted beet in question.

Alain Passard is legend in haute cuisine. A ranking Three (Michelin) Star chef, Passard is the founder, owner, artistic director and head chef of Paris’ legendary L’Arpege.

It’s been said (by food writer Marlena Spieler) that “L’Arpege is a restaurant Parisians don’t so much speak of as purr about, murmuring sounds of delight.”

While Fergus Henderson pursues Nose to Tail Eating with bold inventiveness, Alain Passard has renounced red meat. While he does include the occasional fish or poultry dish on his menu to satisfy the more obstinate carnivorous clientele—and to avoid falling into the category of a vegetarian restaurant, which he claims have done much to disserve the cause of cuisine vegetale—Passard has thrown all of his artifice into the vegetable, which he considers a vast and barely-tapped frontier. “It is,” he says, “as if I had this friend standing next to me for 30 years in the kitchen, and I never even said hello!”

Passard’s cuisine vegetal can be extravagant and complex, such as a chocolate avocado soufflé or a three-layered nasturtium soup (“The cuisine of flowers has hardly been touched,” he says, “even by me.”) Or his cuisine can follow the elegant simplicity of a Zen Koan, in the form of a perfectly cut tomato, salted and drizzled with balsamic vinegar. Passard is quick to point out that behind every deft gesture with the knife in his kitchen there were a thousand deft gestures in the garden.  

Much of the produce served in L’Arpege comes from Passard’s organic garden located outside of Paris, which sends in freshly picked vegetables by high-speed train every morning. Good ingredients—more than culinary complexity—are the root of good cooking, which brings us to the root of the matter: Gopnik’s glancing description of a beet that so captivated the beet-happy editor of this newspaper.

Here is the passage that captured said editor’s eye, in its entirety: “The beet is cooked in a crust of gros sel, as duck and lamb have been for centuries, and then the crust is broken with a flourish and the beet is delicately sliced and served, with a light jus, as the main course.”

Thus began my investigations into the beet recipe which I now call Blood on the Snow.

A Google search of gros sel turned up many pages in French, which did not help me because if I spoke French I would already know what gros sel means. Meanwhile, I found many gushing references to Passard’s salt-roasted beet in various Internet chat rooms. Eventually something clicked. All the talk of Passard’s salt-beet conspired with my combined knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese and resulted in the insight that gros sel must be none other than course salt.

I shrugged off the irony of my cyber-age researching of an age-old recipe for the earthiest of vegetables, and hopped back online, where I found, incredibly, zero hits for a salt-roasted beet recipe.

But I did find a recipe for salt-roasted beef, on www.epicurious.com. Close enough, I figured. I mean, how different could they be? Beef and beet differ by barely a letter.

I did a trial run, substituting beet for beef. It wasn’t bad. It tasted like a beet, and I like beets. Still, it wasn’t something I would serve as part of a $500 meal.

“I don’t think I could even digest a meal that expensive,” marveled my housemate, appalled. “That’s more than some families live on for a whole year.”

Yours Truly, meanwhile, had his sights set on a $500 meal for the price of beets and salt. But I wasn’t sure how to get there from here.

Then I received a response to a desperate e-mail that I’d earlier sent to either San Francisco or London, I still don’t know which.

Marlena Spieler is a roving food columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and I had read her recent mouthwatering dispatch from L’Arpege, in which she encountered the famous beet after a course of cauliflower oven-steamed with seaweed. In her response to my note, Spieler confirmed that the beet was indeed buried in a mountain of coarse salt—but not just any salt. Passard uses Fleur de Sel de Guerande, a very expensive hand-harvested sea salt from Brittany.

The beet was buried near the top of the salt mountain, she wrote, “about a third of the way down. To serve it they tapped around the top of the mountain and lifted the lid off, then fished out the beautiful beet, brushed off a bit of excess salt grains, and voila: served it in thin wedges with a drizzle of 50-year-old balsamic.”

Perhaps this all-important aged balsamic is the jus that Gopnik mentioned.

“The beet was so delicious,” continued Spieler, “so deliciously delicious. Like a salt-roasted chicken or fish, it firmed up the flesh so nicely, intensifying the beetroot flavor.”

Buoyed by this key information, my experimentations continued. Every night for a week, it was salt-beet for dinner, salt-beet for dessert, salt-beet for breakfast.

The salty beet-happy editor won’t pay for a trip to L’Arpege for me to confirm my results, but I think I have it figured out.

I’ve tried this recipe with a dark red variety of beet, and with the striped Chioggia style beet. Both taste good, but the dark red is more visually striking against the white salt. I also find that the red beet has a richer and more complex taste, better suited to hold it’s own against the salt and vinegar. Only with the dark red beet does the dish truly earn the title: Blood on the Snow. (And the dish’s name, were we to use a yellow beet…we won’t go there.)

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