Winter came early this year, but the Belarusian farmers at the Missoula winter farmers market didn’t appear to mind. They hadn't brought much to sell, as their cucumbers and tomatoes were long gone. But they were beaming. All they had were beets, eggs and onions, but they were happy to be there.
I like beets, too, though not in an everyday way. But the way Mr. Lemeza’s rosy, nodding face shone when he discussed beets, I had to wonder how they prepared them, day after day, to sustain such a pace. When I asked how he likes his beets, Lemeza’s grin widened, and he leaned in, as if sharing a valuable secret. His callused worker fingers listed the ingredients: “Beets, carrots, potatoes — cooked," he announced, looking me in the eye. Then, "Chopped onions, pickles, salt, little bit of oil.”
“Cut small,” added an equally exuberant Mrs. Lemeza, beneath a long red parka that matched her husband’s cheeks.
How small? “3/8-inch,” he said, holding his big stubby fingers together, the universal symbol for small.
The Lemezas call this dish beet vinaigrette, which caught me off guard at first. It makes me think of beets with balsamic and goat cheese. Instead, the vinegar in the vinaigrette comes from pickles, which are serious business back home in Olshany, Belarus.
There are about 250 Belarusians from Olshany in the Missoula Valley, she estimates. Olshany is famous for its mega greenhouses, some of them fitted with 10 or more wood stoves in order to extend the season at both ends. This explains a lot, if you’ve seen the Belarusian cucumber farmers in action at the Missoula summer farmers markets.
While the cucumber scene in Olshany was formative, Christians like the Lemezas faced persecution there. “We love to be here,” she told me. “I will say it 100 more times. I love the people, this place, and this country.”
I went home and made beet vinaigrette. The combination of flavors was brilliant. The pickles, onions and potatoes made a charming combination, invoking the flavor of fries and a mouthful of relish, while the sweetness of the beets played the role of ketchup in what tasted a lot like an all-American meal. It was bright, colorful and cheerful, and despite the logic in the name beet vinaigrette, I began calling the dish Christmas Sweater.
The cold never relented, and at market the next week Mr. Lemeza’s rosy cheeks had darkened to a windblown shade of beet maroon. His wife had stayed home that week, so I handed him my Christmas Sweater. He looked at me skeptically.
“It’s too big,” he said, as he prodded it with the spoon I handed him. That was when I remembered his 3/8-inch directive. My chunks were more like 5/8-inch, I realized, and I was ashamed that he probably thought I don’t know the difference between 3/8-inch and 5/8-inch.
“The taste is good,” he acknowledged, sounding surprised to hear himself say it. He agreed to bring some home to his wife, and gave me their phone number.
“The flavor is good,” his wife confirmed, when I called that afternoon. “But the pieces have to be, how do you say? More cute.”
“It’s too ugly?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, laughing.
Before the Thanksgiving potluck, I swore I would not bring an ugly Christmas Sweater, and had cut and cubed my roots as cute as could be.
At the feast, I wondered if anyone would try my little side dish. Soon, the person to my left started mumbling favorably about “this relish stuff.” Then she literally wondered aloud who made it. I smiled like a Belarusian beet farmer.
It's bright, cute and will keep you warm all winter.
Serves 4 as a side, 2 as a main
2 half-pound potatoes, peeled, each cut in half
1 pound beets, peeled and cubed (see below)
½-pound carrots, peeled and cubed
1 medium onion, cubed
2 cups cubed dill pickles
½ cup olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
Steam the potatoes until soft on the outside and still a bit stiff in the middle, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
While that is going, peel the carrots and beets, and cube them as cutely as possible. It’s best to do the beets last, as they will stain any veggies that follow.
Each vegetable will require a slightly different cubing tactic, but there are certain universals. Start by cutting each root in half, lengthwise, and lay the flat sides down, side by side. Cutting straight down, make a series of parallel, lengthwise slices, ⅜-inch apart, or about half a penny across.
Split your newly sliced half like a deck of cards. Pulling apart the sliced half-root exposes two new flat surfaces — one on each quarter. Hold all the slices together, and roll each quarter onto its new flat spot. Spin them around so the flat spots that were facing down now press together. If you are actually doing it while you read this, it will make sense.
From here, cutting straight down, make a grid, like the lines on a ⅜-inch piece of graph paper. Make a series of parallel cuts ⅜-inch apart, then turn the knife 90 degrees and make another series of parallel cuts, ⅜-inch apart.
(If your eyes are glazed over after that lecture, just cut the darn veggies into the smallest cutest cubes you can.)
Put the cubed beets and carrots in separate baking dishes and bake at 350 for about a half-hour, stirring each pan once (with separate implements), until they are a little soft and a little crunchy. If you notice them start to shrink, that’s enough. Remove the beets and carrots from the oven and allow to cool to room temperature.
While the beets and carrots cook, make sure the cutting board is clean from the beets, and cube the potatoes, onions and pickles to 3/8-inch.
When everything is cool, cubed and cute, add the salt and oil and gently toss.
Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column carried in more than 60 newspapers nationwide. Though his audience is national, he says he "always writes about Montana. Usually."
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