Home Plate: Making and using fermented beets
I heard on the radio yesterday that 70,000 gallons of borscht will be served at the Sochi Olympics, which by my reckoning will require something like 700,000 beets. Should there be a spike in the price of borscht ingredients in Sochi’s environs, I could single-handedly stick it to the price-gougers by donating to the American contingent the stock of beets in my refrigerator at the moment, which I estimate to be about 350,000.
I used the other half of my beet harvest two weeks ago on another Russian specialty, beet kvass – fizzy sour beet juice made by tossing beets with salt and water and allowing them to ferment. The resulting liquid is delicious, full of body, tangy, sweet and salty all at once, and it’s a gorgeous, deep garnet color.
Best of all, kvass is full of lactobacilli (the same kinds of microbes that make yogurt sour, which is why some people start their kvass with a little of the liquid from a container of yogurt). These microbes are great for the human digestive tract, so kvass (as long as you don’t heat it and kill the good bacteria) is an excellent probiotic food.
Kvass can be made of many fruits and vegetables and is usually meant to be a refreshing, naturally carbonated beverage. But kvass made of black bread has an alcohol content approaching that of beer; small wonder that this is the most popular version of kvass in Russia and Eastern Europe.
Beet kvass is traditionally used more as an ingredient in other dishes than as a drink. The liquid, along with the fermented beets, makes the best base for borscht, in my opinion. For the full probiotic effect, and because it is super easy, I like to serve beet kvass at room temperature, garnished with a little yogurt, chopped scallions and some small beet leaves harvested from the beets I sprout in the window (just place beets with their root side in a jar of water and you’ll soon have fresh greens).
The fermented beets also make a fabulous tapenade – a twist on the dish usually made with olives as the main ingredient.
Leave the tapenade in the refrigerator overnight to mellow, and something magical happens – it smells and tastes very much like a salami of excellent quality, perfect for those times when you are feeding both vegetarians and committed carnivores.
beets, washed, peeled and chopped into small pieces, about 1/2 inch thick, or thinner, and about 1 inch long
sea salt, as needed
clean, unchlorinated water as needed (if in doubt about water quality, boil the water, then cool it to lukewarm)
a very clean fermentation vessel, such as a large jar, crock or ceramic or stainless steel bowl
Place the prepared beets in a large bowl, then sprinkle them lightly with sea salt and toss. Taste the beets; they should be pleasantly salty, but not overly salted. Add more salt if necessary.
Cover the bowl and allow the beets to sit at room temperature for an hour or two, until they begin to give up some of their juices. Press down on the beets to force liquid out of them.
If there is not enough brine to cover the beets, add enough filtered or boiled and cooled water to cover them (do not use chlorinated water, which can hamper fermentation).
If adding water, sprinkle a little more sea salt into the beets so the liquid is pleasantly salty.
Pour the beets and their liquid into the fermentation vessel. There should be a few inches at least of head space at the top of the vessel to allow for fermentation.
Press down on the beets so they are submerged in liquid.
Place a lid, plate or some plastic wrap over the container, but do not cover tightly because gases will need to escape as the beets ferment. If you are having trouble keeping the beets submerged, you may place a small plate on them weighed down with a glass jar of water.
Place the beets out of sunlight in a room that is 60 to 80 degrees (lower temperatures than that will cause the beets to ferment too slowly, higher temperatures, to ferment too quickly).
You should see some bubbles in the brine within a day or two and the beets should begin to smell a little sour. Stir them occasionally with a clean spoon and make sure they remain covered with liquid.
It is not unusual for fermenting vegetables to grow a bit of mold on top of the liquid.
If that happens, simply scoop it off and discard. If, however, the mixture begins to smell bad (instead of pleasantly sour with a little overtone of alcohol) they beets may have been contaminated with unwanted microorganisms and should be discarded.
Try again, but be more careful about cleanliness the next time.
By the end of 10 days to two weeks, the beet liquid should taste good – salty-sour-sweet with a little fizz to it.
The kvass is ready; simply strain it off the beets to use.
The remaining beets can be employed in recipes along with the kvass – to make borscht, for example. Or they can be prepared separately in any recipe that calls for beets.
Be aware that because they have already been salted, you probably will not need to add any additional salt to a recipe in which you use them.
Beet Kvass Soup
about 1/2 cup room temperature beet kvass per serving
about 1 tablespoon yogurt or sour cream per serving
several baby beet leaves per serving (optional)
about 1 teaspoon chopped scallions or chives per serving
Pour kvass into small individual bowls. Drizzle some yogurt or sour cream over each bowl, top with beet leaves and scallions. Serve immediately.
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons minced onion
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 cups drained beets from kvass
1/2 cup pitted kalamata olives
1 tablespoon mixed minced fresh herbs (use whatever you have – parsley, basil and marjoram or thyme are good)
grated rind of half a lemon (well washed, preferably organic)
juice of one lemon
a few turns of freshly ground black pepper
toasted slices of baguette or pita and/or fresh vegetable crudité for serving
Heat the oil in a small skillet over a medium flame. Add the minced onion and stir. Allow to cook for a minute or two, then add the garlic. Cook for another minute or so, until the mixture is just beginning to brown, then turn off the heat and set aside while proceeding to the next step.
Put the beets into the bowl of a food processor and pulse once or twice to break them up.
Add the remaining ingredients, including the warm oil, onions and garlic, and pulse until you have a coarse puree. You don’t want it to be too smooth.
Taste for seasonings, and add more lemon juice, herbs or pepper if desired – it will definitely not need salt. You can eat this immediately, but for best flavor, allow the mixture to mellow overnight in the refrigerator.
Serve with toasted slices of baguette, pieces of warm pita bread, and/or as a dip for fresh vegetables.
This is also delicious as a sandwich spread or thinly spread on thick pieces of fish before baking.
It will store in the refrigerator for a week or two in a sealed container, especially with a little olive oil poured over the top.