Thanks to my local CSA, the West Newbury CSA at Long Hill Orchard and Farm, I have been enjoying Chioggia beets the past few weeks. This heirloom beet comes from the Italian coastal town of Chioggia, right outside of Venice. In fact, it is often referred to as “Little Venice”. Of course, these beets immediately attract my interest, in my efforts to research the foods and wines from Northeastern Italy for our Italiaoutdoors trips. So I’ve been selecting them every week they’ve been available.
This beet varietal was probably brought to the US in the 1800s by Italian immigrants. Chioggia is a coastal town, which doesn’t quite strike me as the place where beets would come from. It ends up that all beets – and this includes members of the beet family grown for their leaves, such as swiss chard, as well as those grown for their tubers – are descendants of the sea beet. The sea beet is native to the coasts of Europe, northern Africa and southern Asia. It requires moist, well-drained soils, and does not like shade. It is able to tolerate relatively high levels of sodium in its environment because its leaves are waxy, hence its ability to thrive in coastal areas. So that explains why a seaside town like Chioggia can be home to these delicious beets.
I’ve heard that raw beets make a wonderful salad, but had never tried one, so I decided this was the time. We are currently in the throes of a heat wave, with temperatures exceeding 100°, so any recipe that does not involve heat is immediately attractive. My friends Jody Adams and Ken Rivard just started a great food blog, The Garum Factory, and did a wonderful chioggia beet salad with fennel, zucchini, blue cheese and walnuts. Jody states that she pickled the beets because raw beets are too earthy for her taste. Reading up on the chioggia beets, they supposedly have a higher content of geosmin than other beets, a compound that causes the ‘earthy’ flavor. But I had to try it at least once, and I have to say I didn’t find them too earthy at all. It remains unclear as to whether the geosmin is produced by the beet, or a result of its growing environment, so I’d suggest just tasting before deciding – if it is too earthy for you, there are lots of alternatives such as pickling or roasting.
Chioggia beets have a beautiful pink-fuschia-red color, and when sliced open display very attractive concentric rings of pink and white. Unfortunately, this ring pattern fades when they are cooked, but using them raw makes for a very pleasing dish. Many recipes for raw beets recommend grating in a food processor, but I went to a little extra effort and julienned them. With a mandolin or slicer, this is pretty quick, and really makes a nice presentation. But if you a pressed for time, the food processor will work just fine. Some fennel, a nice local goat cheese from Westfield Farm, walnuts, and a citrus dressing, and a great, quick, cool and healthy lunch.
Chioggia Beet and Fennel Salad
Serves 44 chioggia beets 1 head fennel Juice of one orange Juice of two lemons Zest of one orange 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil Kosher salt 1/4 cup walnuts 6 cups mixed greens – lettuces, arugula 4 ounces crumbled goat cheese 2 tablespoons minced chives, parsley, or mint
Cut the greens off the top of the beets and reserve for later use. Peel the beets with a vegetable peeler. Using a slicer or mandolin, thinly slice the beets. Stacking a few slices, use a chef’s knife to cut the beets into narrow strips. Place in a medium bowl.
Remove the fennel fronds. Remove the tough outer layers and cut in half lengthwise (from the top, where the fronds were, through the core end.) Remove the triangular shaped core at the base. Using the slicer or mandolin, thinly slice the fennel. Rinse the slices, dry with a paper towel, and slice into narrow strips, just as you did the beets. Add to the bowl with the beet strips.
Place the orange juice, lemon juice, orange zest and olive oil in a small, sealable container. Shake vigorously. Season with salt. Place the walnuts on a sheet pan. Drizzle with olive oil, and season with salt.
Toast in a pre-heated oven (or toaster oven, when it is 100° outside.) Allow to cool, and coarsely chop.
Place the mixed greens in a large bowl. Dress both the greens and the beet and fennel strips with the citrus vinaigrette you just made. Taste, and season each with salt if needed.
Distribute the greens on 4 plates, topping each with a quarter of the beet and fennel slaw. Top with the crumbled goat cheese, chopped walnuts, and minced chives.