I’m not sure how it happened, but the beet has shed its humble reputation in France to become the darling of Paris chefs. Topped with caviar, shaved over seared scallops, sandwiched with foie gras or baked in salt à la Alain Passard – it seems there is no end of luxury uses for this vivid purple root, which in its pre-cooked, vinegared version has traumatized generations of French schoolchildren.
Try as I might, I could not love the beet for many years. Though it’s rich in natural sugar and looks pretty when puréed, I found its earthy flavor overwhelming and its stain potential off-putting. However, when Joël Thiébault’s beets started arriving at my doorstep every Friday I had no choice but to look at this vegetable differently.
What star chef Joël Robuchon is to French cooking, Joël Thiébault is to market gardening. Just a few miles from Paris in Carrières-sur-Seine, he cultivates some 1,600 vegetable varieties, many of which might have faded into oblivion had he not supplied them to chefs such as Pierre Gagnaire, Flora Mikula, Pascal Barbot of L’Astrance and Antony Clémot of Mon Vieil Ami. I first became aware of his cult status at one of my favourite Paris restaurants, Pétrelle, where chef Jean-Luc André had bunches of yellow and red chard, slender radishes and little round carrots arranged like floral bouquets — I wrote about Pétrelle and those carrots in the October 2004 issue of Paris Notes, www.parisnotes.com. The charismatic Thiébault’s passion for produce is deeply rooted: his family has sold vegetables at the Président Wilson market in the 16th arrondissement since1873.
Though I love nothing better than to spend a leisurely Saturday (or Wednesday) morning at this most chic of Parisian markets — Thiébault is also at the Marché Gros-La Fontaine in the 16th on Tuesdays and Fridays — I can’t cross town every week. Luckily, I have found an even better way to get my hands on Thiébault’s vegetables: Le haut du panier, www.lehautdupanier.com, delivers a giant box packed to the brim with his freshly picked produce right to my door — five floors up, no elevator — every Friday morning (Antoine Meyssonnier and Raimundo Briones, the two foodies who founded this business, are probably the only entrepreneurs in town who have seen all their customers in pajamas).
At first, I admit I didn’t jump for joy at the sight of several raw beets nestled in with the romanesco broccoli and multicolored carrots, dewy salads and silver-green cardoons. Yet I knew that, if they came from Thiébault, these beets must be something special. To get to know them, I first nibbled them raw, shaving them very thinly with my Japanese mandolin (a lethal instrument with no hand-guard) and dipping them into fleur de sel. One beet was beautifully striped pink-and-white, another vivid orange, yet another – the crapaudine variety – long, slender and purple. All were interesting raw in small doses, but I was not yet a convert.
Next, I took these same paper-thin slices, soaked them in very cold water for a few minutes and dried them off on paper towels, then deep-fried them in small batches in my wok (using grapeseed oil) until they turned golden and crisp. Hmm, not bad at all. Still, deep-frying beets is not something I would do every day. Then my friend Stephen, a fellow food writer, sent me the recipe that would change my outlook forever — I now believe that aged comté, available in good Paris cheese shops (the ultimate comes from the cheese-maker Marcel Petite and is available at shops such as Quatrehommes or Alléosse), makes an even better partner for beets than caviar or foie gras. Produced in the beautiful Franche-Comté region on the border with Switzerland, it has a crunchy quality similar to parmesan. Here is the recipe, with a couple of personal twists thrown in.
Beet ‘carpaccio’ with aged comté and walnuts
If you can’t find aged comté, you can substitute parmesan.
1 large or 2 medium beets
1 tsp olive oil
2 large handfuls mâche (lamb’s lettuce)
1 handful walnuts
1 chunk aged comté, as much as you can afford
For the vinaigrette:
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tbsp walnut oil
2 tbsp olive oil
Wash the beet(s) well, without peeling them, and rub with the oil. If you have a small earthenware dish with a lid, place the beets in this – otherwise, wrap them in tin foil. Bake at 375 F for about an hour, until they are tender when pierced with a knife. (This step can be done a few hours in advance.)
Pinch off the roots of the lamb’s lettuce and discard them, if this has not already been done. Wash it well and dry thoroughly in a salad spinner.
If you have time, you can toast the walnuts in a 350 F oven for a few minutes to bring out their flavor, being careful not to burn them.
Peel the beets and slice them as thinly as possible, using a mandolin if you have one.
Make the vinaigrette by combining the lemon juice, salt and pepper in a small bowl, mixing with a small whisk until the salt dissolves. Slowly add the walnut oil and olive oil, whisking constantly.
In a large bowl, toss the lamb’s lettuce with about a third of the dressing. Arrange it in a large, shallow dish. Arrange the beet slices over top and drizzle with the remaining dressing. Top with a generous amount of comté, shaving it directly over the beets with a vegetable peeler, and the walnuts.
2 comment(s) on this page. Add your own comment below.
I have lived in Paris for over 20 years. Beets are on my radar only recently but I cannot find raw beets. All in open markets, grocery stores, Tang freres etc are already cooked. Other than lehautdupanier, any idea where I can find uncooked beets? Thanks. PS - any locavore associations in Paris or Ile-de-France?
Hi Peter, you can usually find uncooked beets in organic supermarkets or at organic stalls in the markets. I've never heard of locavore associations in France - most French people probably think they already eat quite locally, though it's not always true!
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