Skordalia is a traditional Greek sauce made from boiled potatoes that are pounded with fresh garlic and lots of olive oil until it becomes thick, fluffy and unctuous. It is one of life’s perfect foods, combining the simplest elements into a hauntingly flavored sauce.
My favorite ways of eating skordalia are as a room temperature sauce for sliced beets or with giant white lima beans, as they do in Greece, or on grilled peasant bread. It is equally good with any number of other vegetables, cooked or raw, like asparagus, cherry tomatoes asparagus, bell peppers, fennel and artichoke hearts. It is divine with grilled fish or shrimp.
This recipe is roughly based on one my great-grandmother used to make, pounding the garlic in a mortar with an old wooden pestle. I beat in some of the cooking water in place of some olive oil to lighten the sauce a bit and make it less rich.
You can cook beets from scratch using any of the methods below —unusual varieties like candy-striped Chioggia or deep golden yellow beets available in summer markets add great charm — OR buy vacuum-packed roasted beets available in many produce markets (a convenience food the French have relied on for year).
This dish is made of two separately-made components: cooked beets and garlic sauce. Cooked giant white lima beans are another classic accompaniment. (In a pinch, you can use canned beans IF you chose a brand like Goya whose beans are firm and intact; rinse well in a strainer, then drain and pat dry.)
For the beets:
For Greek Garlic Sauce:
Place the potatoes, 3 garlic cloves and ½ teaspoon salt in a medium saucepan with enough water to cover by 1/2 inch. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer about 25 minutes until the potatoes are tender. Replenish the water if necessary to keep the potatoes covered.
With a slotted spoon, transfer the cooked potatoes to a mixer bowl and break them apart. Reserve the cooking liquid. Beat the potatoes with a mixer on low speed until the potatoes are reduced to a coarse meal. (Do not attempt to do this in a food processor or the potatoes will become gummy). Dribble in up to 3/4 cup of the cooking water while beating the potatoes, until they are reduced to a loose, rather soupy puree. Set them aside while you mash the garlic. Place the remaining 5 cloves of garlic in a mortar or directly on the counter. Using a pestle, a flat stone, a meat pounder or other pounding implement, smash the garlic roughly. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and continue mashing the garlic until it is reduced to a paste. (You should have about 2 tablespoons.) Do not use a garlic press or allow the puree to sit or the flavor will be bitter.
Blend the garlic puree into the potatoes. Stir in ½ cup or more of the olive oil, the salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Add lemon juice if desired to lift the flavors. (The intensity of the garlic and the balance of salt will change as the skordalia sits. Adjust the seasoning before serving.) Serve the skordalia warm or at room temperature. Just before serving, drizzle olive oil liberally over the sauce.
To serve, set bowls of the beets and garlic sauce out for guests to serve themselves onto little plates. Or arrange on a platter, with the garlic sauce in the middle.
Store leftovers in a sealed container in the refrigerator up to 2 days. Bring to room temperature before serving.
Essential Cooked Beets
To roast beets (most flavorful method): Trim the greens of 1 bunch of beets (1 1/3 pounds) to within 1 inch and scrub the beets. (Reserve the greens for another use.) Arrange the beets in a small roasting pan, add 1/8 inch water, and cover loosely with foil. Roast at 450' for 30 to 45 minutes, until they are tender when pierced with a knife.
Clean the cooked beets when cool enough to handle: Cut off the stem and root ends and scrape the thin layer of skin off with a knife.
To boil beets: place in a saucepan with 2 inches of cold water to cover. Bring to a boil and cook until tender, about 30 minutes for baby beets to 1 hour for large ones.
To microwave beets: place in a microwave safe dish with about ¼ cup of water; cover. Microwave on high 10 to 15 minutes until tender.
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Reprinted with permission from A New Way to Cook by Sally Schneider, 2001, Artisan, division of Workman Publishing , Inc. Photograpy by Maria Robledo