When her spirits were flagging, or she just needed a little vacation from everyday life, my mother would take me to a Greek restaurant near the theatre district in New York City. We would always order a rustic dish that is a classic in Greek cuisine: cold sliced beets with a garlic sauce known as Skordalia. It is an extraordinarily satisfying and somehow heartening dish. The beets, which taste at once sweet and fruity and slightly of earth, are a perfect foil for the mellow garlic sauce: a creamy base of mashed potatoes beaten with lots of olive oil and vigorously flavored with fresh garlic (an earthier version of egg-yolk based garlic sauces beloved in all Mediterranean countries). It was an early, enduring lesson about the ability of food to transform my view of things, and make me feel like a million bucks.
Years later, I used my Greek great-grandmother’s smooth wooden pestle to pound garlic and potatoes in a mortar for my own version of garlic sauce,made slightly lighter and fluffier by crushing the potatoes with some of their cooking water before beating in the olive oil. Garlic Sauce is also an excellent sauce for cooked dried white beans, any number of raw vegetables such as fennel, peppers and cherry tomatoes, as well as grilled fish and cold shrimp. It is divine smeared onto grilled peasant bread.
Summer is the perfect time of year to make Beets with Garlic Sauce as beets, potatoes and garlic are all at their peak; garlic will be especially mellow and sweet, with no trace of the bitter sprout that appears in winter. The dish becomes all the more charming if you make it with unusual varieties of beets, like candy-striped Chioggia beets or deep golden yellow beets.
Beets with Garlic Sauce
This dish is made of two separately-made components: cooked beets and garlic sauce. Cooked giant white lima beans are another classic accompaniment.
4 to 6 servings
2 pounds beets, cooked (see Basic Cooked Beets, below), and peeled
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Greek Garlic Sauce (Skordalia)
(see recipe, below)
Cut the beets into 1/4-inch thick disks or wedges. Place in a bowl and toss to coat with the balsamic vinegar and salt to taste. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.
To serve, set bowls of the beets and garlic sauce out for guests to serve themselves onto little plates. Or arrange on a platter, with the garlic sauce in the middle.
Greek Garlic Sauce (Skordalia)
Makes about 3 cups
1 1/2 pounds red or yellow waxy potatoes, pared and sliced into 2-inch chunks
8 garlic cloves, peeled and halved lengthwise, green sprout (if any) removed
About 1 teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste
½ to 3/4 cup fruity extra virgin olive oil, to taste
2 to 3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Place the potatoes, 3 garlic cloves and ½ teaspoon salt in a medium saucepan with enough water to cover by 1/2 inch. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer about 25 minutes until the potatoes are tender. Replenish the water as necessary to keep the potatoes covered.
When the potatoes are cooked, place the remaining 5 cloves of garlic in a mortar or directly on the counter. Using a pestle, a flat stone, a meat pounder or other pounding implement, smash the garlic roughly. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and continue mashing the garlic until it is reduced to a paste; you should have about 2 tablespoons. (Do not use a garlic press or allow the puree to sit more than 15 minutes or the flavor will be bitter.)
With a slotted spoon, transfer the cooked potatoes to the mortar or a mixer bowl and break them apart. Reserve the cooking liquid. Using a pestle, or an electric mixer on low speed, beat the potatoes until they are reduced to a coarse meal. (Do not attempt to do this in a food processor or the potatoes will become gummy). Dribble in cooking water (up to 3/4 cup) a little at time while beating the potatoes until they are reduced to a loose puree.
Blend the garlic puree, if pounded separately, into the potatoes. Beat in about ½ cup of the olive oil, lemon juice if desired, salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. (The intensity of the garlic and the balance of salt will change as the skordalia sits.Adjust the seasoning before serving and add additional olive oil if desired.) Serve the garlic sauce warm or at room temperature. Just before serving, drizzle olive oil over the sauce.
Store leftovers in a sealed container in the refrigerator up to 2 days.
Bring to room temperature before serving.
Basic Cooked Beets
In Europe, beets are so widely enjoyed that they are a convenience food. You can buy them cooked, peeled and packed, with nothing added, in plastic pouches, ready to use at the spur of the moment in endive and watercress salads, or to sauté in butter as a side dish. Increasingly, I find those nifty ready-to-eat beets here for those times when I’m lazy or rushed. Otherwise, I’m happy to start from scratch, with a bunch of fresh beets. Here are some ways to cook them:
To roast beets (most flavorful method): Trim the greens off the beets to within 1 inch and scrub the beets. (Reserve the greens for another use.) Arrange the beets in a small roasting pan, add 1/8 inch water, and cover loosely with foil. Roast at 450′ for 30 to 45 minutes, until they are tender when pierced with a knife.
To boil beets: place in a saucepan with 2 inches of cold water to cover. Bring to a boil and cook until tender, about 30 minutes for baby beets to 1 hour for large ones.
To microwave beets: place in a microwave safe dish with about ¼ cup of water; cover. Microwave on high 10 to 15 minutes until tender.
When cool enough to handle, peel the beets: Cut off the stem and root ends and scrape the thin layer of skin off with a knife.