The Allure of Burnt Beets

By Hunter Lewis, Kitchen Director

Published on March 9, 2010

My favorite cookbook of 2009? That's easy; it's Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way (Artisan, 2009) by the Argentine chef Francis Mallmann and the food writer Peter Kaminsky. Here it is March, there's snow on the ground in New York City, and I'm warming my bones by thumbing through this love letter to fire. The book lays out seven different grilling techniques—from the parilla, or what we know as the grill, to the asador, an iron cross used to slow-roast whole animals over coals—with recipes to accompany each technique, including those for juicy steaks, butterflied chicken, and salt-crusted striped bass. Lately, though, I've become engrossed by the arresting textures of Mallmann's vegetables: burnt tomatoes, crunchy, shingled potatoes, caramelized endives, griddled red onions, and burnt carrots that have sped past the stop sign for golden brown and slammed on their brakes just before reaching black. Simply put, Mallmann celebrates the flavor of burnt. "I adore dissonance in food—two tastes fighting each other," he writes. "It wakes up your palate and surprises you.… The right amount of burning or charring can be delicious and seductive."

Smashed Beets with Goat Cheese
Smashed Beets with Goat Cheese

Sweet, seared beets are offset nicely by creamy and tart goat cheese.

Seduced by the recipe for Smashed Beets with Greens, Goat Cheese, and Garlic Chips, I gave it a test-drive in the SAVEUR kitchen. It calls for the beets to be simmered until tender in a broth enriched with olive oil and vinegar, then smashed between paper towels or parchment paper. The smashing creates more surface area and appealingly craggy textures akin to the landscape at Canyonlands National Park. The beets are then seared on a griddle set over glowing embers (or, in our kitchen, in a ripping-hot cast-iron pan), where the beets, thanks to their natural sugars and the high heat, quickly achieve a pleasantly burnt, crunchy crust. Drizzled with a vinaigrette and paired with soft goat cheese, garlic chips, and the trimmed, raw leaves from the beets, the dish is harmonious in its charred, creamy, tangy dissonance. Just don't overdo it. There's a fine line between burnt toast and golden brown toast with beautiful burnt edges. Or, as Mallmann writes, "Stay just this side of the line, and it is lovely."

Photos excerpted from Seven Fires_ by Francis Mallmann (Artisan Books). Copyright 2009. Santiago Solo Monllor photographer._

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