Beet salads. I have to admit that I used to think of rendering fresh beets into smooth, juicy, orbs of crazy magenta was such a taxing chore that I reserved cooking beets for pre-determined occasions. A special side dish, for a special purpose. It’s taken me maybe eight years to understand that cooked beets—and the endless beet salads that can be made from them—are one of the simplest, easiest things to prepare, and to keep on hand. And when you make it ahead, it just gets better sitting in your fridge for a few days.
So it seems really fitting that I’m making a beet salad this month with a kitchen project that I once saw as taxing, overwhelming and a bit weird: preserved lemons. I hope it becomes an everyday staple in my kitchen just like cooked beet salads have, too.
Preserved lemons are a staple of the North African pantry—places (like Morocco) where citrus fruit grows plentifully and pickling or putting them up is a natural means of keeping the harvest going steady. But beets are a staple of cold-climate regions—where hardy root vegetables that can keep for months in cold storage sustain peoples’ dietary needs. So it’s not surprising that I haven’t seen them served together before.
But I had some preserved lemons, thanks to an experiment over the summer. And I recently had Moroccan carrot salad with preserved lemons—twice. So when I got a fresh bunch of beets from the farmers market, I drew on this, swapping out the carrots for bloody beets.
It actually started when my childhood friend Jordan kept goading me to come to dinner at his house sometime, with food prepared by his Moroccan wife and mother-in-law. I wanted to bring them something for the hospitality—but because I’m not really a cookie, dessert or flower kind of lady, I decided to bring them a jar of something pickled. Of course, I landed on a jar of my own pickled, or preserved lemons, in a lovely, vintage blue-tinted mason jar that I’d picked up at a junk shop while on a summer vacay, to be precise.
It was hilarious when I handed them the jar of preserved lemons when I arrived at their house, which was engulfed in the smell of freshly-baked bread that my Jordan’s mother-in-law had just baked for the dinner. On the kitchen counter—in addition to those flattened loaves of bread—was a tall, clear mason jar of preserved lemons of their own, which they were dipping into to slice up for that carrot salad. They politely said, “Oh good, we’re running low!” even though there were probably more preserved lemons in their half-empty huge jar than my full one.
Such is the necessity of preserved lemons to Moroccan cuisine. And whether it’s in a carrot or beet salad, or tagine with chicken and olives, it’s pretty amazing. I don’t understand why more cuisines don’t use it.
But perhaps that’s changing, with the globalist trends in eating today. You might just have to start preserving your own lemons in order to make the recipes in your next month’s issue of a cooking magazine, and you’ll probably see them pop up in New American restaurants, too. Just have fun with them. This is a very simple recipe that will allow you to appreciate cooked beets—with one exciting addition.
Beet Salad with Preserved Lemon
(makes about 3-4 side-dish servings)
bunch of about 5 medium-sized beets, scrubbed and trimmed of stems
half a preserved lemon (see recipe here)
one quarter of a medium-sized red or yellow onion, thinly slivered
1 celery stalk, sliced on a bias into thin slivers
2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
3-4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
salt and black pepper to taste
Cover the beets with water in a pot and bring to a boil; cover, reduce to a simmer, and let cook covered for 30 minutes, or until beets are tender throughout when poked. (Or, roast the beets following this recipe.)
Let cool until cool enough to handle. Slip the skins off and remove the tough ends. Cut into bite-size wedges.
Using a paring knife, scrape off all the white pith from the preserved lemon half so that only a thin layer of yellow peel is remaining. Finely chop the yellow peel. Whisk the mustard and lemon juice in a bowl and slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Stir in the chopped preserved lemon peel, and add salt and pepper to taste. Toss with the beet wedges, onion and celery slivers and serve. Keeps for up to 5 days refrigerated.
(for 3-4 servings)
1 bunch beets: $3.50
1/2 preserved lemon (homemade): $0.25
1/4 onion: $0.20
1 celery stalk: $0.25
2 tablespoons lemon juice: $0.50
3-4 tablespoons olive oil: $0.50
Three brownie points: This is not a complete meal, but it’s a simple, healthy side dish that’s all plant-based with minimal fats. Beets are naturally high in sugar and sodium (which is why they don’t need to be dressed up much), but they’re a rich source of antioxidants and other vitamins and minerals. Eat em up!
Seven brownie points: Lemons don’t grow in the Northeast so it’s funny that everyone here seems to be dead-set on using them in everything, stuck on that Mediterranean diet trend. By preserving them, you’re helping keep them longer so the ones that do make it here don’t go bad. Pile up on lemons and preserve some, while using others fresh. Other than this ingredient and the olive oil (another Mediterranean staple), there’s just in-season fresh vegetables from the farmers market.