February 7, 2019
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Salt-Roasting Isn’t Just for Fish
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With a few handfuls of cheap salt and an egg white, you can make your vegetables taste richer, juicier, and even more like themselves.

Salt roasting is one of those slightly showy, old-school techniques that’s only trotted out once in a while—mostly when there’s company to impress. Despite this reputation, the cooking method is pretty simple: a whole, skin-on ingredient—vegetables or proteins, like a carrot or branzino—is completely encased in salt and roasted in a hot oven. As it roasts, the salt hardens into a golden-brown crust, which is cracked open right at the table to reveal billowing steam and succulent meat or tender vegetables. Simply for showshopping impact, it’s hard to beat, but salt roasting has more to offer than presentation theatrics.

Since the salt crust creates some insulation against intense heat, the usual candidates for salt roasting are easily overcooked (and very expensive) meats, like beef tenderloin or whole fish. But giving this treatment to root vegetables like potatoes, carrots, and beets is a way to trap in a lot of flavor and moisture. This is because salt roasting isn’t really about the salt, but the cooking environment that it creates. A watertight salt crust absorbs surface moisture but traps the rest inside—cooking the ingredient gently in its own juices. Sure, the outermost layers get an aggressive dose of salt, but everything underneath is the juiciest, moistest, most flavorful version of that ingredient you’ve ever had in your life.

Any vegetable that you’d normally bake or roast whole can be salt-roasted to great effect—baby potatoes, carrots, parsnips, even whole heads of cabbage—but my favorite is the beet. While I’ll never turn down a well-cooked beet, roasted or otherwise, salt roasting has a few key advantages over the standard foil-packet technique. The salt crust keeps all that juice inside the skin where it belongs, rather than pooling around the beet inside the foil and burning; it also prevents the beet from shifting or collapsing as it cooks, so you don’t end up with charred patches on the bottom. This yields a perfectly tender, intensely beet-y beet with just a hint of saltiness—and limitless potential. I like them cubed and tossed into salads, but their almost meaty texture makes exceptional pickles, and their concentrated flavor brings extra depth to a pot of borscht.

This beet-centric riff on chicken liver mousse builds savory richness with sautéed onions and a splash of booze, but it’s also got a quick bay leaf and garlic confit, plenty of lemon, and a touch of warm spice to round it all out. Oh, and two sticks of butter, all of which gets deeply browned.

The result is a creamy, complex, bright pink mousse that is worlds away from most beet dips you’ve probably had in your life. All that acid and spice bounces off the beets’ natural sweetness, while the brown butter and aromatics bring the luscious, buttery richness you’d expect from something that calls itself a mousse. Served with mustard, pickles, and good bread, it’s an unexpected addition to any cheese board.

Ingredients

  • 1 large red beet (about 1 pound), scrubbed clean
  • 2-3 cups salt (table salt or kosher salt are fine)
  • 1 egg white
  • 2 sticks butter
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
  • freshly cracked black pepper
  • 1 shallot or 1/2 small yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced into half-moons
  • ½ cup dry white wine or light beer
  • zest and juice of 1/2 a lemon, plus more to taste
  • 1 generous pinch of cayenne pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon ground garam masala, allspice, smoked paprika, or other warm spice

The beet carries most of the flavor and texture here, but butter is an equally important component of this recipe. I always use salted butter, but if you prefer unsalted, be prepared to do lots of seasoning at the end; beets absorb a truly shocking amount of salt. Speaking of which, you can’t exactly reuse the salt crust, so choose a variety that’s inexpensive enough to not feel like a waste. I like plain old (non-iodized) table salt because it’s plentiful and dirt cheap, but your favorite kosher or sea salt will work just as well.

  1. Preheat oven to 400ºF and line the bottom of a small roasting dish or oven-safe skillet with about 1/8 inch of salt. Mix the remaining salt with the egg white in a bowl to create a malleable paste. Grab a handful, spread it out on your palm, and plop the beet right on top. Using your hands, keep smushing the salt paste on and around the beet until it's completely encased. Gently lay the salt-crusted beet in the roasting dish, transfer to the oven, and roast for at least 90 minutes, or up to two hours. (It's nearly impossible to overcook a whole beet of this size, so don't stress about leaving it in too long.)
  2. While the beet roasts, place 1½ sticks of butter in a skillet along with the garlic, bay leaves, and loads of fresh black pepper. Melt everything together over very low heat and cook for 30-40 minutes, stirring every now and then to encourage even browning, until the garlic is super-soft and the butter solids turn golden brown. Pick out and discard the bay leaves, then transfer everything else to a heatproof bowl, scraping the bottom with a spatula to get every last bit of the browned goodness. Cover loosely with foil or a plate and refrigerate until the butter resolidifies, about an hour.
  3. When the beet has cooked through, immediately crack open the salt shell with the dull edge of a chef's knife, being careful to avoid the steam that's trapped inside. Allow to cool until you can comfortably handle it. Rinse off any lingering salt, then rub the skin off with your fingers and roughly chop into one-inch pieces.
  4. Melt another tablespoon of butter in the same skillet from earlier, over medium heat this time. Add the shallot or onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and beginning to brown, 5 minutes for shallots and 10 or so for onions. Add the beet chunks and brown on all sides. Deglaze the pan with the wine or beer, crank the heat, and boil off as much of the liquid as you can. Stir in the lemon zest, juice, and spices, and transfer the contents of the skillet to the work bowl of a food processor.
  5. Scrape the cooled butter and garlic cloves on top of the beets. Pulse to combine, then process until the mixture is totally smooth. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed, adding more salt, spices, or lemon juice until you're happy with how it tastes. Scrape the mousse into a bowl, pressing it through a fine mesh-sieve if desired, and smooth out the top.
  6. Wipe out the skillet, place over medium-low heat, and add the remaining three tablespoons of butter. Cook until the milk solids turn deep brown, 5 to 10 minutes, watching it carefully. A few wisps of smoke are OK and even good, but don't let the solids turn black. Cool slightly, then carefully scrape the browned butter on top of the mousse and tilt the bowl to evenly coat the surface. Cover with foil or a plate and refrigerate overnight. Serve with bread, grainy mustard, and plenty of pickles.

A.A. Newton

A.A. Newton is a Philadelphia-based writer, photographer, and recipe developer.

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