Blood on the snow 

In pursuit of the elusive salt-encrusted beet

click to enlarge Mmmm  nothing hits the spot like a big pile of salt. On - a beet.
  • Mmmm nothing hits the spot like a big pile of salt. On a beet.

The recent food issue of the New Yorker contained an article titled "Two Cooks," written by Adam Gopnik. One of the featured cooks was London's Fergus Henderson, who has achieved notoriety for presenting the innards and unlikely extremities of animals in dishes like pigs' ear soup, ox hearts with pickled walnuts, and rolled spleens. The other of Gopnik's two cooks was Alain Passard, the founder, owner, artistic director and head chef of Paris's legendary L'Arpege.

While Henderson pursues "nose-to-tail eating" with bold inventiveness, Passard is finished with red meat, having thrown all of his artifice into vegetables, 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!"

Much of the produce served at L'Arpege comes from Passard's organic vegetable garden outside Paris, including the beet that Gopnik briefly mentioned in the following passage:

"... 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."

It would be mine, I decided. Oh yes, it would be mine.

A Google search for gros sel turned up many pages in French, which did not help me -- if I spoke French, I already would know what gros sel means. I did, however, find many gushing references to Passard's salt-roasted beet in Web chat rooms. Eventually, I realized and easily confirmed that gros sel simply means "coarse salt."

Then I received a response to a desperate e-mail I'd sent to Marlena Spieler. Spieler is a roving food columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and I had read her mouth-watering recent dispatch from L'Arpege, where she encountered the famous beet. In her response to my e-mail, Spieler confirmed that the beet indeed was entombed in 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 the excess salt grains, and voil: served it in thin wedges with a drizzle of 50-year-old balsamic."

Buoyed by this key information, my experimentation continued. It was salt-beet for dinner, salt-beet for dessert, salt-beet for breakfast.

Following an epicurious.com recipe for the gros sel crust, I mixed four cups coarse salt with a cup of water, stirring until it reached "the consistency of wet snow." I then built a sturdy salt base for my beet in an oiled baking pan or cast-iron skillet. I placed the beet, whose leaves had been clipped at the base, and whose tail had been snipped below the beet's swollen round part, firmly upon its pedestal of salt, and packed more wet salt around it.

From here, the recipe is as follows: Bake for an hour at 300 degrees -- for a larger beet, bake for an hour and 15 minutes. Remove the beet from the oven and let it cool. Set it on a sturdy table, and use a hammer and chisel to open the top of the salt pyramid. Brush off any salt that might cling to the skin, cut the warm beet into wedges and drizzle with aged balsamic vinegar.

The balsamic lends its grapey sweetness and piercing acidity to complement the salted sweet earth tones of the beet, rich as blood and hearty as meat. I call this dish "Blood on the snow."

-- Ari LeVaux


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