There is nothing shy or retiring about beets. The bulbous burgundy roots are bold, turning everything they touch shades of ruby and hot pink. The roots sweetness is best balanced with the sharpness of an acidic seasoning to bring out the earthy flavor. Beets also need something creamy to soften the assertive edge. To make this soup I simmer boiled, chopped beets in an aromatic herb paste and puree it with coconut milk. Lime zest and juice adds the tang to balance the sweetness while mint, garlic, cumin, chiles and shallots add layers of flavor. The color is a lovely deep magenta-pink garnished with vibrant green fresh coriander (cilantro) and pale chopped shallot. A final dusting of chaat masala (tangy spice blend) adds another contrasting tartness against the bed of subtly sweet, earthy soup. Beets evolved from the wild sea-beet that thrived along coastlines from Ireland to North Africa, India and Asia since prehistoric times. They were eaten for their greens since the roots were small and spindly. The Greeks made offerings of beets to the sun god Apollo and the Romans cultivated beets, calling them beta and used the roots medicinally to treat everything from fevers to toothaches—an irony since beets contain more sugar than any other vegetable. My Indian friend Seema loved beets growing up because they were so sweet, especially compared to karela (bitter gourd) and the tongue-prickling patra leaves from the taro tuber. As a teen she smeared her lips with a slice of beet in place of lipstick that was strictly banned in her Mumbai convent school. When shopping for beets, look for smooth, hard round deep red beets. Avoid ones with soft spots or flabby skins and wilted, yellowing leaves. The smaller the size the sweeter the taste, making for beet soup that is hard to beat, and is both hearty and and blushingly beautiful. Chat masala is based on black salt and green mango powder and is sold in small packets in Indian grocery stores. I will also post a recipe for making it yourself.
3 medium or 6 small beets (about 12 ounces)
3 large or 6 small garlic cloves, smashed, skins removed and coarsely chopped
1 fresh green jalapeño, coarsely chopped (seeded for less heat if you wish)
1 1/2 teaspoons peeled and grated fresh gingerroot
2 sprigs of fresh mint (about 12 leaves stripped from the stem)
Zest of 1 lime, removed with a citrus zester or Microplane rasp-style grater
2 limes, divided use
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 generous teaspoon cumin seeds
3 large or 6 small shallots (about 6 ounces) or 1 small red onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 cups vegetable stock (homemade or canned)
1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of sugar
One 14 to 15 ounce can unsweetened coconut milk
Sprigs of fresh coriander (cilantro)
2 small shallots, peeled and sliced into thin rings
Chaat masala (tangy spice blend), optional
PREPARING THE BEETS. If the greens are attached, cut them off leaving about 1/2 an inch of stems. Rinse but do not peel or cut off the root end. Place in a saucepan and add water to cover by an inch or so. Add a pinch of salt and bring to a boil over high heat and boil until tender when pierced with the tip of a sharp knife, about 45 to 50 minutes (a little longer if the beets are large). Drain in a colander and when cool enough to handle trim the root ends and peel the skins off (if the beets are small, the thin skin can be left on). Chop into rough chunks and set aside.
MAKING THE AROMATIC PASTE (MASALA). Place the garlic, jalapeño, ginger, mint, lime zest and the juice of one of the limes in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal S-shaped blade (a mini one that fits on a blender is ideal). Process, pulsing on and off, stopping at least once to scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula until fairly smooth, about 2 minutes (the light green mixture will be speckled with small dark green bits).
COOKING THE SOUP BASE. Heat the oil in a large wide skillet over medium heat. Drop in the cumin seeds and fry until the seeds sizzle and darken, about 2 minutes. Add the shallots (or red onion) and cook, stirring almost constantly with a slotted spoon until soft and starting to turn pale caramel, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the beets and aromatic paste and cook, stirring frequently until the paste dries up and clings to the beets, about 3 minutes. Add the vegetable stock and season with the salt, a few good twists of the pepper grinder and the pinch of sugar. Simmer about 10 minutes and turn off the heat.
PUREEING THE BEET MIXTURE AND COCONUT MILK. Transfer half the beet mixture to the jar of a blender and add half the can of coconut milk. Blend until smooth, about 1 to 1 1/2 minutes and pour in a clean saucepan. Blend the rest of the beets and coconut milk and add to the pan. Taste and adjust for salt and add the juice of the remaining lime. Gently bring to a simmer over low heat. Pour in to a tureen or ladle into soup bowls. Serve garnished with sprigs of fresh coriander (cilantro) and sliced shallots and sprinkle with a little chaat masala (tangy spice blend). Makes 4 to 6 servings.