(Recipe) Fast, Delicious Beet and Yogurt Starter

This divine starter “borrowed” from the Lark menu is incredibly easy to make and tastes wonderful. 

A recent jaunt to the Pacific Northwest reiterated what I already knew: Besides its beauty, that region has some killer ingredients and restaurants.  A case in point is this starter served at Lark, a casual but accomplished small-plates spot up in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, which is awash in eateries these days. What could be easier than roasted baby beets, Greek yogurt, za’atar (a Middle Eastern blend of herbs, sesame seeds and sumac), salted pistachios and mint?  But wow, is it tasty!The version we had at Lark was miniscule but every bite was divine.  Next to the cut beets was a smear of rich Greek yogurt drizzled with olive oil and a sprinkling of za’atar, with a little chopped mint as garnish.  The salted nuts provided extra  texture and  taste appeal. This was the easiest recipe I’ve ever stolen.   It makes a classy, unusual starter that’s sure to make guests happy.

The interior of Lark in Seattle, a simple room with gauzy swaths of fabric that give the restaurant a romantic air.

In a pinch, this dish can be turned into fast food by picking up the cooked French beets sold at Trader Joe’s, which are quite serviceable.  The basic concept is easy to dress up or down with additions and changes.  My latest tweak is to toss a little arugula with lemon and olive oil, adding that at one end of the plate as a mini green salad.  While mint works great, other herbs would as well.  Say, chervil or dill.

This is so darn easy that what’s below isn’t a measured-out recipe, since one isn’t needed.  I rarely cook that way, preferring to toss things together — the French call this approach au pif, which means, at random or without measuring.  But be serious about ingredient quality because that makes all the difference.  I’ve addressed that below.

Beets with Greek Yogurt, Za’atar, Pictachios and Mint

Beets – Baby beets are better, more than one color of beet is advised for the looks, but the dish will still be good with monochromatic beets, bigger beets or even already-cooked beets from Trader Joe’s.  Just don’t use canned beets, which are the reason many people hate this great vegetable.   There are many ways to cook beets but I default to the Alice Waters technique, which is to put the beets in a pan with a little water in the bottom, cover with foil and roast at 425 for about an hour or until they’re tender.  Slip off the skins and you’re ready.

Yogurt – This isn’t the place for nonfat, watery yogurt.  I recommend Fage’s “total” version, Greek-style (which means, strained) yogurt with delicious creaminess.  You can use the 2% version, but the calorie difference between the 2% and “total” isn’t enough to justify skimping.

Olive oil – I’ve fallen in love with the extra-virgin olive oils made in Northern California by the California Olive Ranch.  They’re lush, fragrant, fresh and cheap for the quality.  Some of the bigger Safeway’s carry it locally, along with other stores (check their website).  It’s worth seeking out — or ordering online — the Arbequina oil from these guys.  Simply incredible.  But all their oils are excellent, with superb flavor.

Za’atar –  I have some made in Palestine that features thyme and doesn’t seem to include much salt.  Spice shops, Middle Eastern markets and upscale groceries should carry za’atar.  Or it’s easy to assemble your own.   Here’s one version.

Lemon – My default is the Meyer lemons that are widely grown around the Bay Area, including my backyard.  However, regular lemon is fine, too.

Directions:

Cut cooked beets in half lengthwise and put on individual plates on one end.  Put a healthy smear of yogurt on each plate (be generous).

Drizzle some fresh lemon juice over the beets, then olive oil across the beets and yogurt.  Sprinkle za’atar and some salt (if the za’atar isn’t salty enough) on beets and yogurt.   Add a handful of salted, shelled pistachios (Trader Joe’s has them) across each plate, then add some fresh mint, cut in a chiffonade or just chopped.

Use a good olive oil like those from California Olive Ranch, whose bright color and forward flavors are very tasty with the yogurt and nuts.

Options are to add some high-end olives (the yummy, bright-green Castelvetrano olives available at some olive bars –Whole Foods sometimes has them– are a particularly good choice), or put a mini salad — lemon juice and olive oil on arugula) on one end.

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