I don't think I ever actually cooked a beet until I was about 30 years old. My childhood was one of those that included the repulsion that only canned beets can produce. Their staining red syntheticness scarred me, scared me off beets for years to come. Until I moved to California. Maybe it wasn't the fact that it was California, but rather that I started shopping at local farmers markets. There were the easy temptations - the heirloom tomatoes and the ripe, fragrant stone fruits and the supremely bitter arugula. Then there were those things that I simply hadn't cooked before. I started cooking Brussels sprouts after buying them still on the stalk, and have loved them ever since. And I finally found a way to overcome my aversion to beets, having read about the wonders of roasting them in the oven and the reassurances that doing so would erase all (OK, most) memories of canned beets from the brain.
Which brings us to Jerusalem. Or at least the cookbook called Jerusalem.
If there is one smell to match the emblematic image of the Old City of Jerusalem, one odor that encapsulates the soul of this ancient city nestled in the Judean Mountains, it is the smell of za'atar... sharp, warm, and slightly pungent, almost at one with the smell of goats' dung, smoke from a far-off fire, soil baked in the sun, and - dare we say it - sweat.
Well, Penzeys' version of za'atar is a spice mix featuring sumac and thyme (a close relative of za'atar proper) and white sesame seeds ... but no za'atar itself, an herb known as hyssop in other cultures. Maybe it's for the better? In any case, it does add a wonderful accent of floral, musty fragrance to a dish. And it works wonders paired with beets in a simple puree with Greek yogurt, garlic, olive oil and a spicy red chile.
The recipe in Jerusalem for pureed beets with yogurt and za'atar is easy to execute, once you have the ingredients. The beets get the oven-roasting treatment, about an hour at 400 degrees before cooling. They provide the body of the puree, the pungent color, and the earthy sweetness. The yogurt adds a bit of creamy texture, a bit of sour bite. The red chile and za'atar combine to dance around the sweetness of the beets, to pointedly poke through the deep purple red with flashes of spice. Then, just as brilliantly, the recipe calls for a sprinkling of hazelnuts (for crunch), goats cheese (for its pure white color and textural contrast), and thinly sliced green onions (ditto, a splash of green, a crisp chew). It's a simple yet surprisingly magical concoction. Just don't use canned beets.
The other night, I served the puree - it's really a thick dip - with mini-pita breads from the store and sliced cucumber sprinkled with a bit more za'atar. It works great as an appetizer to get your tastebuds going, preferably before trying more of the interesting and exotic dishes from Jerusalem.
Get in Ma Mouth is a look at delicious things around Atlanta. It all started with a fig and mascarpone doughnut "slider," but knows no bounds other than that of eager hunger - sweet or savory, solid or liquid, homemade or store-bought. Click here for an archive of "Get in Ma Mouth" temptations.
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