Mouths to Feed: Beet the System

By Celia Barbour

The only beets my kids ever truly loved were grated, mixed with ricotta and breadcrumbs, and folded inside fresh raviolis the four of us made one afternoon from scratch, insanely, rolling out the pasta dough ourselves, enclosing the filling and cutting out the shapes, boiling the finished raviolis then tossing them in butter — and in the process covering the whole kitchen in pasta flour, beet shreds, globs of ricotta, and dirty pots, pans, bowls, and utensils.

beetsThey made for an excellent dinner, those hard-won little dough packages, served with a green salad on the side. They didn’t amount to a whole lot of dinner, however, and we were all hungry again by the time the kitchen was clean — a task performed entirely (washing, scrubbing, drying, sweeping) by me. There was an oppression of dishes, a mess worthy of a battlefield. But, I reminded myself, what better use of a mother’s power than to subtly manipulate her children’s memories by editing out the negative parts of experiences she wants them to remember fondly? Indeed, I felt it was a smallish price for a great culinary victory, namely teaching my kids that they don’t hate beets categorically.

Which they don’t.

For sure, they absolutely hate beets all kinds of ways: pickled, boiled, and (most of the time) raw and roasted. They will not go near them at my friend Frances’s house when she serves them, as she often does, simply dressed in olive oil and sea salt. Two out of three of my kids (the boys) like beets OK in a fairly amazing chilled beet soup I made last summer, and they don’t bother to pick every single last one of them out of a kale salad with thinly sliced beets — only some of them.

But no matter how many negative beet experiences they rack up, they still remember those raviolis. So that if, for example, they are with me at the farmers market and spy a pretty bunch of small, new beets, they will say, “Remember those raviolis we made that one time? We should do that again. They were soooo delicious.”

This is the kind of thing that matters to me, perhaps more than it should: My kids see beets and a happy thought comes to mind. They don’t immediately think yuck. Many kids — many grown-ups, for that matter — think yuck at the sight of certain foods. It is a mind-closer, that word. And a closed mind can take many years and slaps of happenstance to pry back open.

I know. I didn’t discover I liked beets until I was deep into my 20s. I had grown up on canned and pickled beets, and loathed them. One night, I went to a bistro with a friend who ordered a salad that sounded disagreeable on the menu: roasted beets, goat cheese, and bitter greens. The dish arrived, my friend offered me a bite, and lo, I was free. Moreover, I was transformed into someone who would order my own beet salad the next time I went to a restaurant and would, on that occasion, offer a bite to some other skeptical, beet-averse friend, freeing him from beet-aversion, and so forth and so on, ad infinitum.

Which is just to say: early exposure is not a necessary precondition to adult-onset beet zealotry. Moreover, beets themselves are hardly necessary to a healthful diet; most of us Americans grow up just fine with nary a beet in our lives. So it would be irresponsible of me to promote the recipe below as one you need in your repertoire. But I can tell you this: If it’s beet-love you’re after, then this is the best way I know to play cupid and spark it.

Beet and Ricotta Ravioli

(Adapted from Bon Appetit.)

Fresh sheep’s-milk ricotta is in season right now, and available for a short while at Union Square greenmarket; it makes this dish transcendent. If you can’t find it, use equal parts goat cheese and store-bought ricotta — the latter is too bland if used on its own.

3 small beets (about 14 ounces)

½ cup fresh sheep’s-milk ricotta (or ¼ cup ricotta plus ¼ cup goat cheese)

2 tablespoons plain breadcrumbs

¼ teaspoon fresh lemon zest

salt and pepper

1¼ pounds fresh pasta (see note)

1 stick butter

1 tablespoon poppy seeds

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

  1. Heat oven to 400˚. Trim stems and tails from beets. Place in a small pan (a loaf pan will do) and cover tightly with foil. Roast about 40 minutes, or until tender when poked with a knife. Uncover pan and allow beets to cool. Peel off the skin, then grate using the medium-fine holes on a box grater.
  2. Combine beets, ricotta, breadcrumbs, zest, and salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
  3. Roll the pasta dough almost thin enough to read a newspaper through. Lay on a lightly-floured work surface, and cut out circles using a biscuit or cookie cutter, or the rim of an overturned glass. Arrange circles on a floured cookie sheet as you go; cover with plastic wrap. (Scraps can be re-rolled and cut.)
  4. Set up your ravioli-making workspace: Flour a surface plus two kitchen towels. Set a dish of water nearby, along with the bowl of beet filling and the pan of pasta circles. Working with 5 or 6 circles at a time (and keeping the remaining pasta covered), place a scant teaspoonful of filling on half of each circle. Dip your finger in water and dampen the edge of one circle; fold in half and pinch edges together to seal. Place finished raviolis between the floured towels as you go. (You can freeze the raviolis in a resealable bag at this point; when ready to cook, don’t thaw them, just dump them straight from the bag into boiling water.)
  5. Heat a large pot of generously-salted water to a rolling boil. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, melt the butter and continue to cook over medium-low heat, stirring, until it turns golden brown and smells nutty. Stir in poppy seeds and remove from heat. Working in batches, boil raviolis about 2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to skillet. When all the raviolis are cooked, warm the skillet gently. Toss with half the Parmesan just before serving; pass the rest at the table.

(Note: recipes for fresh egg pasta can be found in most Italian cookbooks, and online; I like this one.)

Photo by C. Barbour


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