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what not to rush: roasted beets and feta

When I was growing up, I always turned my nose up if my mother served beets. Whether they were on the side of the dinner plate or studding a salad like jewels, I wouldn’t eat them. And don’t get me wrong—I tried them; we didn’t get to reject anything unless we’d tried it first. But I hated them. I think they were the very first food I hated. Certainly it’s the food aversion I remember most vividly.

But you don’t marry a Ukrainian man without being able to eat your beets. And it turns out I like them just fine, as long as they aren’t swimming in vinegar. Who’d have thought? Canned beets taste nothing like beets that you cook yourself. If you hate beets because of the vinegar thing, I understand completely. I think, unless you are super-picky, that you might like them much better if you make them yourself. I like making them a day in advance, so that I can throw them on the table with about five minutes’ work the next day. The roasting part itself can take a long time, so I can forgive my mother and yours for the canned-beet thing. 

Beets are actually very sweet and earthy. They don’t taste like anything else in the world. But a little part of me still flinches before I take the first bite, even today, because all I can remember is the vinegar from my childhood table. Scarred for life! And then I close my eyes and take the bite anyway and it’s all okay then because the flavor is intense and deep, like a candy made for adults. I like to make this dish with yellow beets if I can find them, because the green of the dill stands out even more, not to mention that yellow ones will not turn your feta pink and are kind to your cutting boards.

But for all I know you might have been hoping to have pink feta someday. Or maybe you never knew you had that hope until just now. 

Roasted Beets and Feta

1 to 1½ pounds beets, very firm and fresh (if they come with greens, you can sauté them like spinach)

¼ to ⅓ cup lemon juice

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

¼ cup dill, chopped

¼ to ⅓ cup crumbled feta cheese, very fresh

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°. Remove any attached greens and reserve for another use. Wash the beets well and dry them, and then wrap them in foil. 
  2. Bake the beets until they are soft all the way through. Test this by piercing them; you can use a knife, but I have a long metal skewer I like for this purpose. I happened to get really huge beets for this recipe, both of them somewhere between baseball-sized and softball-sized, and I baked them for 90 minutes, but if you get little ones, they’ll cook much faster. Remove each beet as it finishes, especially important if you have a mix of sizes on your tray.
  3. Let the wrapped beets sit at room temperature until they’re all out of the oven, and then, when they’re cool enough to touch, put them (still wrapped!) into the fridge for three hours to overnight. 
  4. Remove foil. Peel the beets by slicing the skin with a sharp knife and then peeling the skin with your fingers. You will probably only need to make one or two starter cuts; the rest of the skin should fall away from the beet very easily. If you’re using purple beets, do this over a sink. Cut the beets into bite-sized pieces and place into serving bowl.
  5. In a small bowl, whisk together lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Pour over the cold beets and toss gently with your hands. Add dill and feta and toss very gently. Taste and add more lemon juice or salt if desired. Serve immediately.
Variations: Use lime juice or orange juice instead of lemon juice; use parsley instead of dill; add toasted walnuts before serving; use softened goat cheese instead of feta. Soup variation: Simmer roasted and peeled bite-sized beet pieces and dill in 4 to 5 cups water or light broth for 15 minutes. Puree with immersion blender until very smooth. Stir in 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar or 2 tablespoons lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper. Taste and add more acid or salt if desired. Serve immediately, garnished with crumbled feta and dill.