In the immortal words of Beyonce, “If you liked it, then you shoulda put some straw on it.” Well, maybe that isn’t her exact phrasing, but the sentiment nonetheless holds true—when it comes to beets. Yes, beets. Or any root vegetables really. But beets are on our minds as we’re fresh off a visit to Nashville and Chef Matt Lackey at Flyte World Dining and Wine. Lackey prepared for us a Trio of Beets. In one preparation the beets are pressure cooked then brined more than a month. In another, raw beets are shaved and pickled. The third and most impressive beet preparation involves the “forgotten” ones.
“Forgotten” is Lackey’s poetic terminology for a beet cultivation technique he uses to grow uniformly sized and intensly flavored beets. For those of us who didn’t grow up on their grandfather’s farm in Castalian Springs, Tennessee, here’s the lowdown on “forgetting.”
Lackey’s “forgetting” technique, “ allows the beets to get to a standard size, not too large and woody or too small,” he says. “Then we allow them to stay in the ground and go into hibernation. This concentrates their sugars.”
Born to a Tennessee farming family, Lackey has worked with Sean Brock on his seed bank farm, and today at he funnels in product from his farm and works closely with area farmers to supply his kitchen at Flyte. “Concentrating sugars: this is where the whole idea of forgotten beets came from,” says Lackey.
What Lackey is doing by “forgetting” his beets, is actually tricking them. It starts with the sweet little beets lined-up in neat rows in the ground. Lackey cloaks them—greens and all—with a straw cover that blocks out certain UV rays. The beets are essentially tricked into dormancy and left behind.
Chef Matt Lackey
Trio of Beets
“We planted the beets in increments from September 15 to October 18. Unlike the kitchen, we’re dealing with uncontrollable nature. The increments help us ensure we’ll get some useable product,” he says. “Three days before the first frost, we covered the entire plot with straw. After one month had passed, we checked different sections of the plots. Close to the edges of the plot, we had some beets that had lost moisture content and also some that had frozen and were unuseable. We continued to check the plot over the next two months, to see how the beets held up and also how they tasted.”
How did those beets taste? Sweeter. Sugars condensed in Lackey's stunted beets, which never had the chance to grow to be the size of a baseball or have their flavor and sugars diluted by a fuller figure. Back in the kitchen at Flyte, Lackey takes this flavor density a step further. Giving the forgotten beets his full and undivided attention, Lackey roasts the taproots low and slow for eight hours on a nest of lemongrass leaves, turmeric, and vanilla beans at 160°F. Finally, he anoints them with a touch of house fermented chile before setting them shoulder to shoulder on plates with their cured and pickled counterparts. Add dill cream (made with a jolting and earthy shot of espresso) and paper-thin slices of house-cured ham, along with a crown of micro daikon greens, and the most labor intensive, time consuming, interesting, and intense beet dish we've had in a long time, is ready to make its way to the dining room—onto the table to the left, to the left.
Forgotten Beets Technique
Plant beets in increments during a four week period, beginning about five to six weeks before the first frost usually comes.
Cover the plots completely with straw, so most of the sunlight will be blocked out. Do this a week to a few days before the first frost of the season is anticipated.
Over the course of the next three months, check a few beets at the sides of the plot for moisture loss, once a month. Bring them back to the kitchen and taste them.
When the beets have reached the desired standardized size from moisture loss and desired flavor, harvest them. Discard frozen beets or use for another purpose. The layer of hay should keep most beets from freezing. (Remember Chef Lackey is in Tennessee, not Alaska.)
Slow roast the beets at 160°F for 7 to 8 hours on a nest of lemongrass leaves, turmeric, and vanilla beans.