My Pop Pop absolutely loved canned beets. They appeared often during family dinners, adoringly displayed in their little crystal bowl. Typically, my mom would make me eat a "no thank you" portion of foods I didn't like, but for some reason beets were exempt from the rule. So, I was able to carry that beet grudge until just recently.
Oddly enough, I was in New Zealand when I discovered an amazing Middle Eastern-inspired beet spread. We were killing time around Nelson on our final day, and to escape a blinding downpour we retreated to a seafood restaurant called Jellyfish. As part of their Jellyfish Platter, which simply promised "spreads", they served a shockingly fuchsia beet dip that I can't stop thinking about.
The recipe today is inspired by the one in Yotam Ottolenhi's Jerusalam cookbook. Ottolenghi has been my favorite chef to follow ever since I got his cookbook Plenty, which focuses on vegetarian dishes with massive flavors. He's putting Israeli and Middle Eastern flavors on the map in a big way - expect to hear a lot more about him this year. Anyway, I'm done fawning. Onto the dip.
This dip is flavored with za'atar, a blend of herbs, sesame and salt. It's increasingly available in mainstream markets - I got mine at Target. Za'atar is a great spice to have in your pantry. Use it as a rub on chicken before roasting, sprinkle over butternut squash or sweet potatoes... It's a super easy way to add big flavor. Wait. Onto the dip!
The dip is the most gorgeous color. Honestly, at least half the appeal for me is visual. I like to serve it with pita chips, but it's also great with brown bread and sliced cucumbers or celery. This could be just the dip to wow the girls at your next Superbowl party. (The guys probably won't care, especially if there are wings in the room)
Word of warning - this one takes some time and effort. Your hands and your kitchen will be temporarily magenta. But I think it's worth it.
Beet and Za'atar Dip
Yield: Serves a party
Prep Time: 20 min Cook Time: 1 hour Total Time: 1 hr 30 min (includes cooling)
2 lbs / 900 g medium beets (about 6 beets)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 small red or green chile, seeded and diced
1 cup / 250g plain Greek yogurt
1.5 Tbs maple syrup
3 Tbs olive oil, plus some for drizzling over finished dip
1 Tbs Za'atar
2 green onions, thinly sliced
2 tsp / 15 g toasted hazelnuts, chopped
2 oz / 60 g goat cheese, crumbled
Preheat the oven to 400F / 200C. Pull the tops of the beets off and scrub them down. Make sure you leave the tips on - it helps contain the juices within the beets while they roast. Place them in a roasting pan and bake for at least an hour, until a knife slides easily through the center.
Peeling beets can be tricky. Ideally, once the beets have cooled enough to easily handle, place your thumb near the top of the beet (where the greens used to be), and pull down - the skin might peel right off. Or, in my case most times, cut off each end and use a paring knife to peel the stubborn parts. Once peeled, cut each beet into chunks. Wash your purple hands.
Using a food processor or blender, puree the beets with the garlic, chile, yogurt, maple syrup, olive oil and za'atar, plus 1 tsp salt.
Transfer the dip to your serving bowl (I like to use white bowls to showcase the color) and sprinkle with green onions, hazelnuts and goat cheese. Drizzle with a bit more olive oil and serve with pita, brown bread or veggies.
A note on toasting hazelnuts: Put the hazelnuts on a small pan in the oven during the final eight minutes of the beets cooking time. Then pour them onto a clean dishtowel, fold the towel over the nuts, and rub them to peel off the skins.