This simple, elegant tart has a layer of creamy whipped feta cheese topped with lightly marinated roasted beets. A puff pastry shell makes it a breeze to prepare, while a scattering of fresh mint and crunchy pistachios adds crunch and freshness.
We’ve been finishing up a few projects here at Nerds with Knives, which is why you might not have seen a new post from us for (checks watch) six to eight weeks. One of those projects is, we’re thrilled to announce, our new cookbook, Cork and Knife, which will be published in six days! You can follow the link to read all about it and pre-order. Please do check it out!
In the meantime, our summer garden has been producing some delicious harvests, and this week we’d like to talk about our beets (that’s beetroots to you in the U.K.). There’s a reason why beet and goat cheese salads have been ubiquitous on menus for as long as we’ve had menus to peruse: it’s a fantastic combination. But like any classic pairing, the devil is in the details. I adore beets, but they often need a little coaxing to bring out their best flavor. They are referred to as having an “earthy” flavor by those who love them, and “like dirt” by those who don’t. That earthiness, which is found in many root vegetables like carrots and potatoes, is produced by a compound called geosmin. (Nerd note: geosmin is also found in one of my favorite scents, and favorite words, petrichor – the smell of the earth when it just starts to rain.) Acids break down geosmin, which is why beets are often paired with a tart vinaigrette. Tart cheeses, like chèvre, feta and some blues are a tasty foil to that sweet earthiness.
In the past we’ve never had great luck growing vegetables from seeds but, come Spring, we can never seem to resist the incredible variety and beautiful art on the seed packets from Hudson Valley Seed Company. This year we tried a few different tomato varieties, Italian striped eggplant, various squashes and one of my favorite vegetables, Chioggia Beets.
Chioggia beets, an heirloom variety from Italy, are sometimes called ‘candy cane’, or ‘bulls eye’ beets. They have dark pink skin, and when sliced open, they have gorgeous hot pink and white stripes. They taste very similar to regular purple beets, though sometimes they might be a little sweeter. If you find small to medium ones, you can thinly shave them raw into salads or use them as a garnish. Larger ones you can cook just like any other kind of beet (roasted, steamed, pickled, etc). They’ll lose the stripe effect when cooked, but they’ll turn a beautiful orangey/rose pink. Of course, you can make this recipe with any kind of beets you like.
To make the tart, first you have to cook the beets*. I like to roast them because it concentrates the flavor and it’s also just easy. Give them a good wash to eliminate any dirt, trim off the stalks and root end (if the leaves look fresh, save them and cook them like other hardy greens, they’re delicious) wrap them in foil and pop them in a hot oven. Medium beets can take about an hour, large ones even longer so check them every once in a while. They’re done when you can pierce them with a fork or a paring knife with little resistance. Set the roasted beets aside until they’re cool enough to handle. At this point the skins of the roasted beets will be loose enough that you can rub them off with a paper towel or the side of a spoon. Warm beets soak up more flavor, so I like to slice them and toss them in the simple vinaigrette right away, as soon as I can touch them without burning myself. Then they can sit at room temperature while you cook the rest of the recipe. If you want to make them a day or two ahead, refrigerate them and let them come back to room temperature before you place them on the tart.
*If you have a couple of small, young beets, you can keep them raw to shave on top for a pretty garnish.
While the beets are roasting, you can make the whipped feta which is nothing more than good feta cheese (we prefer Greek or French, but we talk a little about the different kinds of feta you can buy in this article for cumin-roasted cauliflower), whipped in a food processor with some cream cheese, lemon zest and garlic. Transfer it to a bowl and add in some chopped chives and some freshly ground black pepper. Feta is usually quite salty so you probably won’t need to add more salt, but taste it and season to your liking. Set it aside if you’re going to use it right away, or refrigerate it if you want to store it for several hours (you can also make the whipped feta up to three days ahead and store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator. You’ll want to bring it back to room temperature and give it a good stir to make it smooth and spreadable again).
Next, comes the puff pastry dough. You’ll want to move it from the freezer to the refrigerator at least a few hours before you’re ready to cook. I usually move it the night before so I don’t forget. Depending on what brand you buy, the pastry will either come in two folded sheets or one large one. The best brand of puff pastry we’ve found is Dufour, which is made with all butter, but it’s hard to find and kind of expensive. We usually use Pepperidge Farm which uses some vegetable shortening but still tastes great. (I’ve heard good things about Trader Joe’s brand but we don’t have a store near us. Yet.).
This recipe makes two 9-inch circular tarts but you could easily just make one or keep them square. Using a lightly floured rolling pin and work surface, roll out the dough just enough to smooth the folds and to make it large enough to cut out a 9-inch circle with a sharp knife (using a pie tin or the bottom of a springform pan as a guide makes this super easy). Transfer them to a parchment-lined baking tray (you may need two trays if they don’t fit side-by-side). Using a sharp knife, score a 1-inch border around the edge of both tarts but don’t cut all the way through. Then use a fork to poke holes all over the bottom inside the ring. This will allow the edges to puff up, while the inside stays mostly flat. Brush the rim with the beaten egg and bake until the pastry is golden brown and the edges are nice and puffy. If the centers puff a bit too much, you can press them down with your fingers once it cools a little.
A few tips for working with puff pastry:
- Colder pastry puffs more than room temperature. If it warms up too much as you work with it, pop it back into the refrigerator for 10 to 15 minutes to firm back up before you bake. You can also prep it and leave it in the refrigerator overnight, if you want.
- Make sure to use a sharp knife to cut the pastry. A dull edge will compress the layers, making it harder for the dough to puff up.
- Be careful not to roll the puff pastry too thin, especially if making a tart. The shell needs to be sturdy enough to hold the toppings and stay crisp.
- If there are any tears or holes, use your fingers to gently squeeze the pastry back together.
To assemble: Once the shells cool for a few minutes, spread half the whipped feta in the center of each tart and then place the marinated roasted beets on top. If you’re using some raw beet shavings, add them to the center. I love mint with feta so that’s what I sprinkled over but any soft herb, like basil, parsley, shiso or more chives would be tasty too. A few chopped pistachios for crunch, and a drizzle of any leftover beet vinaigrette and it’s time to eat!
- 5 medium beets (chioggia, if you can find them)
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more to drizzle (optional)
- 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 (400g) package frozen puff pastry, thawed in the refrigerator
- 1 egg
- 8 ounces feta cheese, room temperature (Greek or French recommended)
- 4 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
- 1 small garlic clove, minced or grated
- 2 teaspoons lemon zest (from 1 lemon)
- 3 tablespoons minced fresh chives or scallions, divided
- 1 or 2 small peeled beets, raw, shaved thin
- 2 tablespoons chopped pistachios
- 2 tablespoon chopped fresh mint leaves, chives or basil
- Preheat oven to 375°F. Wash the beets in cold water to remove any dirt and trim off the top and bottom. Set one small beet aside to shave raw (optional), and lay the rest of the beets on a large sheet of aluminum foil. Wrap the beets in the foil to seal them in, then place the foil on a baking sheet and bake until the beets are tender and easily pierced with a paring knife, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Let the beets cool until you can handle them, then use a paper towel or the back of a spoon to rub the skins off.
- Slice the roasted beets into thin rounds and add them to bowl. Add in the olive oil and vinegar, and a pinch of salt and pepper and toss gently to coat. The beets can be roasted and marinated up to a day ahead. If using, peel the raw beet and, using a mandolin or sharp knife, shave rounds as thinly as possible and set them aside.
- While the beets are roasting, make the whipped feta. Crumble the feta into the bowl of a food processor and add the cream cheese, garlic and lemon zest. Puree, scraping down the sides as needed, until the feta is very creamy and smooth, about 2-3 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and stir in 2 tablespoons of the chives and a little black pepper. The whipped feta will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
- This recipe makes two 9-inch tarts, so you’ll need two 9-inch pastry circles. Roll out the sheet(s) of puff pastry on a lightly floured surface and cut into two 9-inch circles (it helps to use a 9-inch pie tin as a guide). Place them on a parchment lined baking sheet. Without cutting through the pastry, score a 1-inch border around the edges with a sharp knife, then prick the center of the pastry all over using a fork. Beat the egg in a small bowl and brush the edges of the pastry. Bake in a preheated oven for 15 to 20 minutes. until the pastry is golden brown and the edges are puffed.
- Let the pastry cool for 10 minutes, then spread half the whipped feta over the center of each tart. Cover the tarts with slices of the roasted beets, then scatter over some mint, pistachios and shaved raw beet, if using. Serve hot or room temperature.