I'll admit that I'm a bit of a Food Network junkie. Don't get me wrong - I really don't watch much television (Jonathan and I don't even have cable in our apartment), but when I have easy access to cooking shows, I'll indulge myself in a little Giada, Bobby, or Ina.
The truth is, though, I utterly despise (at least in theory) most of the cooking shows on the Food Network. Rachael Ray? Well, I won't go there. There are literally entire blogs devoted to that subject (and some of them are so nasty that I feel bad even providing links to them). Honestly though, her show is no worse than the rest of them. A few weeks ago, I saw someone make pasta (from a box) with tomato sauce and a plain green salad on the side. On television. I know lots of people don't do much cooking, but seriously? Pasta from a box?
That's just the tip of the iceberg, too. Watching "Down Home with the Neelys" makes me feel uncomfortably embarrassed for the entire Neely family. Sandra Lee seems to think that dumping all manner of processed junk into her crockpot makes it "homemade." And everything Paula Deen showcases on her half-hour heart attack how-to just makes me want to barf, period.
The only show that I really enjoy on the Food Network is the Barefoot Contessa, with Ina Garten. Perhaps it's because she used to have a show on PBS's How-to Saturday, along with culinary greats like Jacques Pepin, Julia Child, and Martin Yan. In any case, her food is beautiful and creative, and she herself is one of the most likable television chefs on the air. Although most of Ina's recipes are caterer-friendly, and thus brimming with all sorts of fat and sugar, a recipe that caught my eye on her show was her chilled beet soup, a summery riff on borscht that uses yogurt and sour cream as its base.
With a fresh bunch of chioggia beets from the farmers market, and in desperate need of a restorative chilled something-or-other on account of the weather, I decided to make my own version of chilled beet soup. I had never used chioggia beets before, but thought that their white and red stripes would allow for a more subdued hue in my recipe. The soup that Ina makes is veritably fuchsia in color, and, although lovely, seems a bit extreme for a first course.
I didn't expect the red in my beets to completely wash out, though, which is exactly what happened. After boiling my beets, I was left with a dark brownish cooking liquid and almost perfectly white-fleshed beets. Instead of a soft pink soup, what I ended up with was something that looked suspiciously like the raita that I love so much in Indian restaurants: runny and white with flecks of green herbs and black pepper.
Despite its color though, the soup was very summery and refreshing, and decidedly beet-y, too. My version is heavily flavored with dill, which lends an herbiness that is richer and more savory, in my opinion, than the taste of cilantro or mint. Trying to achieve a more evenly textured soup, I used my new (and incredibly awesome) stick blender to lightly puree the chunks of cucumber and beet with the yogurt base, leaving just a few smaller, chunkier pieces of vegetable.
As you can probably imagine, my version of the soup is much lighter than Ina's; I used non-fat plain yogurt with just a few tablespoons of reduced-fat Greek yogurt mixed in (I had to use up that little half-container somehow...) and skipped the sour cream entirely. I also didn't sweeten the soup at all, as the beets are sweet enough on their own for my tastes.
All in all, this is a lovely and simple soup, and I imagine it would look as good in pink as it does in white. I can also imagine it without the beets and perhaps with some shredded carrot, so maybe it would even be nice in orange, too. The recipe that I give here is only a guideline; this is the type of dish that is very forgiving and that can be easily tweaked and adjusted. Just be sure to let it sit for a few hours before serving; this gives the flavors time to meld and develop.
Chilled Beet Soup, in Disguise
3 or 4 beets (chioggia or regular)
1/2 English cucumber, peeled and diced
2-3 tbs. chopped fresh dill
1/2 c. beet cooking liquid
1 1/2 c. plain yogurt
juice of 1 lemon
1 tbs. white wine vinegar
generous pinch of aleppo pepper, or substitute dried chili flakes
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Boil the beets in water to cover until fork-tender, about 40 minutes. Reserve cooking liquid. When cool enough to handle, peel beets, and then chop into small pieces. In a large bowl, mix about 1/2 c. of the beet cooking liquid with the yogurt, lemon juice, and vinegar. Season to taste and mix well. Add beets, cucumber, and dill, and use a stick blender to lightly blend to desired consistency. Adjust seasonings and refrigerate for several hours or overnight. Before serving, stir thoroughly and top with a few grinds of black pepper. Serve chilled.