It can be challenging to prepare a set menu for large groups of people. Invariably, the cook encounters guests whose preferences and prejudices threaten the integrity of the dishes.
But, it’s not always the guests’ fault. Many people are introduced to an ingredient only after it’s been undercooked, overcooked, improperly seasoned, burned, buried or generally abused.
Some ingredients are acquired tastes. Sardines, which I love, are not loved by my wife. The same goes for licorice. Some flavor profiles are just special.
Other ingredients, however, are just not easy to cook and are ruined by traditional cooking.
Beets are a great ingredient to mention if you wish to elicit a “yuck” accompanied by a sour facial expression. Certainly, commercially canned beets are bland and mushy—as are some home pickled beets.
Me? I don’t know if I could live without (properly cooked) beets.
Brussels sprouts are another ingredient that’s sure to flare some nostrils—they’re often bitter, boring and soggy.
And though we live in the South, I encounter plenty of people who hate kale, mustard, turnip, beet and collard greens. All of these are often served exceedingly bitter, mushy and discolored.
I would wager that 9 times out of 10 (and possibly 10 times out of 10) the people who don’t like the abovementioned vegetables weren’t given a proper introduction.
I say this after considerable first-hand experience—mostly with beets, Brussels sprouts and collards.
There are variations on the following recipes, but these are the recipes with which I’ve had consistently great results—and consistently great feedback.
This preparation will work for medium to large red or golden beets. If you’ve been particularly traumatized by eating badly cooked beets, a batch of roasted golden beets may be just what you need. They are slightly less earthy compared to the red ones.
Entirely cut off the tops as well as the scraggly portion of the root. (If the greens are firm and healthy, save them to cook and eat, which we’ll get to shortly.) Wash the beets and shake them dry.
Place the beets top-down on medium squares of aluminum foil—as many as 3 together, or as few as 1, depending on their sizes. Drizzle the beets with a few teaspoons of canola oil and a good pinch of kosher salt. Completely wrap the beets in the foil, place on a sheet tray and into a 450-degree (F) oven for 45 minutes.
They’re done cooking when a paring knife can be inserted to the center of the beet without resistance. The larger beets will take longer, but not much longer. Allow to cool a bit, but while they’re still warm, use a few wads of paper towel to gently “wipe” the skins from the beets.
Whether golden or red, these beets are best when treated simply. Slice and toss them with olive oil and red wine vinegar (or butter and lemon) along with salt and pepper to be eaten as a side, as part of a salad, or in a bowl—perhaps with some goat cheese—as a snack.
They don’t need to be mushy, bitter—or cooked whole, for that matter.
I like to trim off a small bit of the stem along with a few of the typically discolored, outside leaves. Cut small sprouts in half, and the large ones into quarters. Over medium-high heat, sauté a few diced slices of bacon until the meat is cooked and most of the fat is rendered. Remove the bacon pieces. To the rendered fat, add enough Brussels sprout pieces to not quite fill the pan.
Allow the sprouts to brown on one side, then reduce the heat and either flip or turn the pieces to brown on another side. If they’re browning too quickly, but not cooking and becoming tender, add a few tablespoons of water to the pan and cover for about a minute.
Uncover and taste. If they’re tender, add back the bacon and season with salt, pepper and either lemon or red wine vinegar. If they’re not yet tender, give them a touch more water and another 30 seconds to a minute covered. Brussels sprouts can also be cut thin or shredded like cabbage and sautéed that way.
Whether the greens are tender, like beet greens or Swiss chard; or tough, like collards, turnip greens, mustard greens or kale, all greens can benefit from being blanched. The tender greens barely need 30 seconds in well salted, boiling water.
Use a generous teaspoon of salt (about two of kosher) and a couple of quarts of water per pound of greens. Tender greens can keep their stems and simply be chopped across the leaf into large pieces—tougher greens should be stemmed, chopped and given about 5 minutes in boiling water. Tasting the greens is the best way to judge doneness.
Both types of greens then need a plunge in ice water to stop the cooking and set their green color. They can then be dressed and eaten cold or at room temperature. They can also be briefly sautéed, seasoned and served hot. (Collards, for example, can be sautéed like spinach with a little garlic, crushed red chili, salt, lemon and olive oil.)
Beets are a bit more delicate than the Brussels sprouts and greens, but all of them benefit from a balanced seasoning. A little fat and acid are needed to compliment these vegetables’ earthiness, but salt is essential to bring out their best. Pepper is great with beets and Brussels sprouts—on the greens it’s up to personal preference.
Additionally, the abovementioned vegetables are like few others. To deny yourself their flavor, color, texture and nutritive value is a shame—though understandable if you’ve never tasted them at their best.
Perhaps now you’ll consider giving them another chance. Who knows, you—or someone you cook for—may even discover a new favorite food.