We saw Slumdog Millionaire over the weekend and, boy oh boy, did that movie ever make me hungry. So many delicious parts to speak of, especially in the beginning. Or it could have been all the dancing I did in the aisles during the closing credits. Either way, I had a hankering for Indian food afterwards and, naturally, I thought of beets.
Actually, I didn’t think of beets at all. Rarely do I give beets much thought. I like them, but that’s usually overridden by the fact that I object to the way they stain your fingers and bleed all over everything. Yes, I know that’s a girly thing to say, but I thought one of the benefits of eating vegetables was not having any blood on your hands.
So lately I’ve been indulging in golden beets. Just as tasty, but no mess. And things were going fine, really they were, until I saw a photo in my new Indian cookbook pictured above, 5 Spices, 50 Dishes by Ruta Kahate, which showed both kinds of beets together like so many garnets and topaz. Oooooooooooo, pretty. That combined with my newly revised image of what squalor looks like, I thought maybe a little purple dye on my hands wasn’t so bad after all.
Except here’s the thing, and I knew this: You can’t cook both kinds of beets together and expect them to retain their original color. No way. Beautiful as it is, that picture up there is a total food-styling cheat. Nowhere in the recipe does it say to sauté the beets separately, and even if it did, let’s face it, I would have ignored it. If you do boil them together and then sauté them together, they will end up looking like this:
Two-toned magenta in all its hideousness. But you know what? When you finally sample the dish, it tastes every bit the way that first picture looks. Which, I guess, is the argument behind all those crazy tricks that the really good food photographers use. And it’s why I’m risking a copyright infringement lawsuit by posting that photo. You can’t go by my shot, which makes the dish look like it’ll taste like crap. Then, when you scan the humble ingredient list, you’ll wonder what’s so special about it, anyway. Beets, a little lemon juice, some mustard seeds, cilantro. Big deal. I don’t know why it tastes so good, but it does. It sings. It dances. You’ll like it. I bet you a million dollars.
Sautéed Beets with Mustard and Lemon Juice
You’ll be tempted to leave out the chiles, am I right? Don’t do it. Sweet with a little bit of heat is an addictive combination. Plus, don’t you have a whole bunch in the freezer from the summer? No? Next year, save some. Serranos are yummy!
2 lb. red and golden beets (about 8 medium)
3 Tbsp. canola oil
½ tsp. mustard seeds
2 small green Serrano chiles, sliced thinly (or just one if you’re scared)
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. lemon juice, or more to taste
2 Tbsp. minced cilantro leaves
Scrub and rinse the beets well. Cover with water in a medium pot and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and cook, covered, until tender, 20-30 minutes depending on the size of the beets. If a paring knife slides into the thickest part of the beet fairly easily, then they’re done. Drain, cool, peel, and then chop the beets into ½-inch cubes (baby beets can be quartered).
Heat the oil in a wok or large frying pan over high heat. When the oil begins to smoke, add the mustard seeds and cover with a lid or splatter screen. The seeds will pop right out of there if given half a chance. When the seeds have stopped sputtering, add the chiles and give a quick stir. Quickly throw in the beets and salt. Toss, cover, and steam over low heat for 6 to 8 minutes to allow the flavors to blend.
Remove to a serving dish and toss with lemon juice and cilantro. Serve warm or cold.
Source: Adapted minimally from 5 Spices, 50 Dishes by Ruta Kahate