Sunday, July 8, 2007
Roasted Beet & Feta Tart with Red Chili, Thyme, & Oregano
It’s not every day you get dirty food shopping. Especially not in Manhattan. But that’s just what happened when I stopped to admire the golden beets at the Migliorelli Farm stand on Friday. I grabbed a bunch, cool and leafy, from the middle of the heap, and came up coated with the stubborn earth still clinging to the orange-yellow roots. I could tell from the snap of the leaves and the heady mineral-fragrance that these little gems had just been pulled from the field, and I knew they’d be delicious. After all, when was the last time you got dirty in a supermarket?
Even after they’d been scrubbed, the beets held onto their fresh-from-the field aroma. In fact, as Susanna Hoffman tells us in her cookbook The Olive and the Caper , the word “aroma” comes from the ancient Greek verb “to plough” and means “the scent of newly ploughed soil.” So the earthy aroma of freshly pulled beets and the concept of perfume are richly intertwined in linguistic and sensory memory for the Greeks.
Theirs has long been a cuisine that values fresh produce. As Hoffman notes, the Ancient Greeks made offerings to Apollo the sun god of root vegetables forged in various metals. Turnips were made in lead, radishes in gold, and beets in silver. So beets, perhaps not quite as adored as radishes, have ranked pretty highly for a pretty long time in the hearts of Greeks.
I’ve always felt they’re particularly well suited to cheeses. Whether the faint twang of a spring chevre or the earthy punch of savory-sweet gorgonzola, the pairing is one of my favorites. Crumbly, brine-packed sheep’s milk feta is a natural for the earthy “aroma” of fresh beets, and it’s a combination I’ve been served many times – both in Greece and here in the States. I love this tart – so much lighter and cleaner than most set or filled tarts – for showing off the beet-feta affinity. Add the heat of minced chili and the fragrance of some fresh oregano and thyme, and you’ve got a lovely summer lunch or light supper.
Beets are harvested here from June to November, and in the cooler months I swap in some fresh rosemary and gorgonzola or cabrales for a more autumnal feel.
Serves 4 – 6
1 package frozen puff pastry
2 bunches of beets in different colors if possible, trimmed and scrubbed
extra virgin olive oil
4 sprigs fresh thyme
flour, for rolling out the pastry
1 large red chili pepper, seeded and minced
2 sprigs fresh oregano, leaves minced
freshly ground black pepper
scant ¼ lb feta cheese, sheep’s milk if available
Put the puff pastry out on the counter to defrost for 1 - 2 hours (2 - 3 hours in the fridge).
Pack the beets in foil packages keeping the colors separate. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle with some salt, and tuck a thyme sprig into each package. Seal loosely and place in an ovenproof pan or dish. Place in a cold over and turn the heat to 375 F. Roast for 30 minutes – longer if your oven’s a slow preheat.
When the beets have softened slightly but are still very firm, slice them into thin rounds, keeping the colors separated at all times. Slice the darkest beets last and wipe the cutting board carefully.
When the pastry’s thawed, sprinkle both sides with flour and roll out to a rectangle about 12” by 15”. Brush a baking sheet with olive oil and place the pastry in the center. Brush the top of the pastry with more olive oil. Arrange the beet slices on the pastry sparingly – you’ll probably have extra that you can save for salads or snacking. Sprinkle with half the minced chili, half the minced oregano, and the leaves of 1 of the thyme sprigs. Finish by crumbling over the feta, drizzling the whole thing with a little more olive oil, and seasoning lightly with salt and pepper. Remember, though, that the feta already adds salinity, and, though deseeded, there's still a little heat in the chili.
Whisk the egg with a teaspoon of water and brush the tart’s edges with the mixture. Place the baking sheet in the middle of the oven, still at 375, and bake until the feta is caramelized and the pastry doesn’t fall when you remove it from the oven – about 30 to 40 minutes.
Transfer the tart to a cooling rack. Allow to cool for 10 minutes and then sprinkle with the remaining chili, oregano, and thyme leaves. Slice into 8 or 10 wedges and serve warm or at room temperature.