If you are like me, you have been existing for years in a sorry state of existence in which the only vegetable mixed into a tzatziki sauce is the cucumber (which isn’t even technically a vegetable, oh, and I suppose garlic is, but anyway, we’re not going to go there). No more! This limited viewpoint is about to come to an end. Come with me into a brave new world, and allow me to introduce you to beet tzatziki, a delightful gem of a spread/dip/salad/midnight snack…
Backing up just a bit, I, oddly enough, have my recent packed schedule of research focus groups to thank for this discovery. You see, I have somehow become one of my department’s experts in focus group moderating. I don’t even quite know how it came about, I just know that now I not only do my own focus groups, I help out with those of other research projects as well.
I seem to have an affinity for it, especially focus groups with kids. (The secret? I find if you just stare at people expectantly for long enough, they’ll get uncomfortable and start talking. No, but, actually, I think the most important thing is being genuinely interested in what people have to say. It comes across.)
On the way back to our office from a focus group a little while back, a colleague suggested that we stop at Sofra Bakery for coffee and a snack. I wasn’t going to say no. Sofra is the bakery and café of Anna Sortun, the chef of the Middle-Eastern style Oleana Restaurant.
And, let me tell you, Oleana sounds vaguely like “holy mama!” because that is what you’ll find yourself saying in response to every dish you taste there. More flavor and texture is packed into a single bite of one of Sortun’s dishes than you frequently find in an entire restaurant menu.
The same goes for the food at Sofra, I discovered. The Middle Eastern pastries – stuffed with all manner of cheeses and spiced fruits or vegetables and dusted with seeds and herbs you can only find in a dedicated spice market – the herbed fruit drinks (think blueberry lavender or raspberry rose petal), the spreads and flatbreads, the thick tar-black coffee, oh the coffee! It’s all fairly expensive for a café, but it was decidedly worth it. And, we both decided that more of our routes to and from focus groups needed to wend past there.
I didn’t try any of their mezze, but I certainly stared for a good while at the beautiful colors and textures of the palate of spreads and finger foods, transfixed like a child watching a colorful, whirring toy machine. One that particularly caught my eye was the beet tzatziki. You couldn’t miss it! It was pink enough to deserve a spot in Barbie’s Dream Kitchen.
With a little questioning, I learned that using beets in tzatziki instead of cucumbers is quite traditional in areas of the Eastern Mediterranean. And, that all it really required was to cook and shred beets, then stir them in with the more standard yogurt, crushed garlic and herbs, in this case dill.
I was incredibly intrigued and decided I was going to give it a try at home. I made it once as part of mezze for dinner. I made it again to bring to a party as a dip. I made it a third time to sneak into sandwiches. I was hooked.
Using beets in tzatziki transforms it. It still has the cool, soothing flavor of the yogurt and the grassy dill, but where the cucumber gives a refreshing vegetal splash, like a spray from a hose, the beet provides a sweet earthiness, like ducking into a cool shady glen. The beet flavor is there, but it doesn’t taste beet-y. The sum is more than its parts. It is different – dare I say better?
Sure, cucumber tzatziki will always be classic, the stalwart old guard. But look out, because there is a new kid and town, and he’s not afraid to wear a bright pink shirt!
The beet version of tzatziki is also a bit heartier. It makes a great spread for crackers or flatbread, but I would also eat it as a side dish – a creamy salad of sorts – or atop a bowl of farro or bulgur, cooked with some spices. It was amazing served as part of a mezze platter along with pita, herb jam, feta, and thinly sliced grilled steak (which I rubbed with one of my favorite spice rubs – a mix of garlic, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, paprika, salt and pepper).
I’ve only made it three times in the past month? That’s definitely not enough yet!
Beet Tzatziki (makes a couple of cups)
- About 1 lb. of beets (any color works, though red beets give you the most exciting colored tzatziki), stems removed
- 1 clove of garlic, finely minced
- 1 – 1 1/2 cup of thick Greek-style yogurt (I’d definitely recommend using whole-milk or 2% yogurt over a non-fat version)
- 1 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
- 3-4 Tbs. finely chopped dill
- salt and pepper to taste
- To prepare the beets by roasting: wrap the whole, unpeeled beets tightly in aluminum foil. Roast them in a 425F oven until they are tender when pierced by a knife (this takes 50-60 minutes, usually, though it all depends on the size of your beets). Remove from the oven and allow them to cool, still wrapped in the aluminum.
- To prepare the beets by boiling: put the whole, unpeeled beets in a pot and add enough water to just cover them. Cover the pot and bring it to a boil. Turn it down to a simmer, and cook the beets, covered, until tender, about 30 minutes. Drain, and allow to cool.
- Take your cooled beets and use your fingers to slip the peels off of them. If they’re fully cooked, the skin should come off quite easily. If you need to, you can use a butter knife to help you gently scrape the skin off.
- Chop off the tops and tips of the beets. Then, use the coarsest side of a box grater and grate the beets into a mixing bowl.
- Stir in the garlic, yogurt, lemon juice, and dill. Add salt and pepper to taste. Then, refrigerate until you are ready to use it. Use as a dip, spread, sauce, salad, or whatever else you come up with.