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A surfeit of beets

Borscht!Some people get flowers on opening night of a play. I got beets.

No kidding: My friend (and the stage manager of the show I’ve been directing) came into an excess of beets and, after asking if I liked them (oh, yes!), brought in a bag of beets bigger than my fist, probably 2-3 pounds worth.

Young beets are great for raw preparations: julienned atop a salad, thinly sliced and sprinkled with a little salt. Older beets need cooking to transform their woody texture to something tender and delectable. And other than just roasting and eating them, my favorite thing to make with big o’l beets is a big ol’ pot of borscht.

Or borsht. Or borsh, or even barszcz, depending on which Eastern European language is describing this hearty vegetable soup. The “authentic” recipes are as varied as the cultures they come from, and you can find internet flame wars on various cooking sites involving people who swear that their grandmother’s recipe is the One True Borscht/Borsch/etc., and all others heretical nonsense. There are recipes that call for beef, recipes that call for pork, recipes that call for no meat at all. Some say cabbage is required, some say potatoes, and some even say you don’t need beets to make a borscht.

If you’ve read me long, you know I’m not a purist. I’ve made borscht with and without cabbage, carrots, potatoes, meat; I’ve even made it with duck leg confit because I had some on hand. I always use beets – without beets, I’d call it vegetable soup and be done with it. But otherwise, like many good dishes, my borscht is a matter of what’s fresh, what’s local and what’s in the larder.

Roasting the bonesThis time I went the whole nine yards and started by spending Saturday making a big pot of home-made beef stock, beginning by oven-roasting a couple of pounds of “soup bones” –  meaty beef shanks that the butcher had sawn in short lengths, the better to expose the tasty marrow – from Heritage Farms NW.  There’s nothing like rich, flavorful homemade stock to add depth and character to a humble soup, and this may be the best batch I’ve ever made. I wound up with four quarts of stock; half of it went back into the pot this morning to make the borscht, and the other half is in the fridge, awaiting further reduction tomorrow evening to produce demi-glace, the syrupy, concentrated essence of beef that’s one of the serious cook’s best friends.

Stock isn’t hard to make. It does require attention – you don’t want any part of it to scorch or burn, because that adds an unpleasant bitterness to the stock. And you do want to simmer it long enough to reduce the liquid by a good deal and concentrate all the rich flavors – otherwise you might as well make your soup with water. Here’s a great little step-by-step tutorial for the uninitiated. Don’t be put off by what seem to be many, many steps; none of it is hard or even particularly labor-intensive, and the results are fabulous.

However: You could also make a perfectly good borscht with stock-inna-box, or even a good beef concentrate (Better than Boullon is a staple of my own kitchen). Vegetarians, look for mushroom stock if you can find it; good vegetable stock if you can’t. Just please, please, don’t use bouillon cubes – they taste of nothing much other than salt, and your soup will wind up much too salty.

The borscht itself is easy as can be, and (once you’ve got stock) pretty quick to make; it’s also infinitely adaptable to suit your own tastes and those of your diners. Except, perhaps, the ones who are averse to beets – and if they’re willing to try it, they may be surprised.

Beefy Borscht

Ingredients

Borscht ingredients

  • 2 pounds of fresh beets, trimmed and scrubbed
  • Olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp butter (or more olive oil)
  • 1 cup carrots, coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup chopped onions (or shallots, or leeks)
  • 4-6 cups thinly sliced cabbage. I like to use purple, because it intensifies the hue of the final dish, but green is fine.
  • 2-6 cloves of garlic, minced
  • Some potatoes, peeled or not, and coarsely diced (optional)
  • 1 Tbsp minced fresh dill, or 1 tsp dried. Additional fresh or dried herbs as you prefer
  • 4-6 cups beef (or vegetable) stock
  • Cooked beef from the stock-making, shredded – or sliced sausage, diced pork chops, or other meat that won’t require long cooking. (Optional, but it turns the soup into a hearty meal).
  • Leftover rind from a hunk of good parmesan cheese (optional)
  • Juice of two limes, or a few tablespoons of red-wine vinegar.
  • Salt (if needed)
  • For garnish: sour cream, sprigs of fresh dill

Toss beets in olive oil, put them on a baking sheet and roast in a 350F oven for 20-30 minutes, until they’re tender. Remove from oven and allow to cool, then rub off the skins and trim off any tough bits near the stem. You can roast the beets the day before; if so, refrigerate overnight. When it’s time to make borscht, cut them in bite-sized pieces.

In the bottom of a large, heavy-bottomed stock pot or dutch oven, melt butter or olive oil until it sizzles. Add onion and carrots; sautee, stirring frequently, until onion is softening. Stir in the cabbage, garlic, potato (if you’re using it; I don’t), herbs and meat, and add stock to the pot to generously cover all the ingredients. If you happen to have a rind of parmesan on hand, toss that in – it will melt into the soup, adding an extra touch of tang and umami to the soup.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 20-30 minutes, until carrots are tender. Stir in the lime juice or vinegar (I prefer lime, but vinegar seems to be traditional). Taste to see if salt is needed. If your stock is home-made, it probably won’t be (the natural saltiness of beef gets concentrated in the stock-making).

Ladle into bowls, garnish with a swirl of sour cream and a sprig of fresh dill. Serve hot, with crusty bread to mop up the bowl. Serves a bunch, and like so many soups, it’s even better the next day.

This soup freezes beautifully, especially if you leave out the potatoes (I’m never happy with how potatoes fare when frozen). Half the batch I made this morning will go into freezer containers for cold-weather meals!

October 3, 2010 at 1:12 pm Leave a comment

Signal Boost: The Mom Food Project

Cooking with momWe all know what Mom Food is, even though its specifics may vary: It’s the food you grew up with, the food that instantly evokes feelings of home and comfort and being cared for. For some it might be potroast with all the fixings on Sunday evening; for others it might be frozen fish sticks served with the same side dishes every time it showed up on the table.

As my friend Serene puts it:

“Mom Food is about the people who feed us because they love us.  It’s also about the food that evokes memories of being loved.

For me, it’s my mom. For you, it may be your dad, your aunt, a grandparent, or the person next door who took care of you when your parents couldn’t. … Mom Food doesn’t have to be fancy and elaborate.  Mom Food is just food — creamed peas on toast, or spaghetti with tomato sauce, or congee — made by someone who loves you.”

Boy, do I get that.

If you’ve read the “about” page on my blog, you’ll recognize the photo above. That’s me and my mom in the kitchen, circa 1962-63. While she could be an excellent and adventurous cook (how many other American families get home-made Japanese food for Christmas dinner?), the daily pressure of shopping and cooking for a family of six – including a meat-and-potatoes spouse – meant that the meals of my childhood were often simple, straightforward and (especially at the end of the month) economical.

A homemaker of her times, she embraced the then-novel convenience foods because they made mealtime faster and easier, if not more adventurous. Yeah, she might (and did) haul 6-year-old me and my 4-year-old brother through the streets of a small Japanese city tasting raw fish and vinegared vegetables; she also put Kraft macaroni and cheese on the table for meatless Catholic Fridays, invariably served with canned pickled beets because she’d read in some women’s magazine that color contrasts helped make a meal more interesting.

So when I think of “mom food,” what comes to mind, among other things, is “slumgully,” a skillet dish of her invention involving ground beef, chopped celery and canned mushrooms, sauced with bottled ketchup and served over enough egg noodles to stretch the dish to feed a hungry family. But also her dog-eared, 1930s edition of Fannie Farmer, and how, once I was old enough to help in the kitchen, she’d hand it to me and say “find something you’d like to cook. If you can read the recipe, you can make it.” That laid the foundation for my own adventures in cooking, and being unafraid to try new things.

Serene’s blog about Mom Food is wonderful. Go read it right now.

As she writes: “Food isn’t love. Feeding people is love.”

August 16, 2010 at 7:19 am 2 comments

Peach season

Perfect peachAhhhh, peaches.

The Willamette Valley is not a huge peach-growing region – the season is brief, the potential problems from weather and pests are many, the delicacy of the ripe fruit can make transporting it to and from the markets a challenge. But a few hardy growers make the effort, and when the time comes, I seek them out.

Jeannine and Tom  Thieme at Firstfruits Farm grow 22 varieties of peaches, and I’d be hard-pressed to say which are my favorites, other than “the ones they have at the farmers’ market now.” This week it was rosy Early Lorings and fragrant, white-fleshed Raritan Roses, and I bought a half-dozen of each.

The minute I got home I ate the first one, standing on the back porch, juice dripping down my chin and splattering my toes (really!). Then I turned half of the rest into a quick, easy peach salsa to take to a friend’s barbecue, where even a guy who professes not to like peaches gobbled it up with enthusiasm.

(My salsa was just diced peaches, a couple of diced lemon cucumbers, diced red onion, a few serrano peppers seeded and minced,  dressed with lime juice and a drizzle of honey. But really, you could substitute peaches for tomatoes in your favorite salsa recipe and not go wrong – although I’d use lime juice for any vinegar the recipe might call for).

Today, realizing that the ripe fruit would rapidly turn into overripe fruit if I didn’t do something with it, I made peach cobbler.

Google “peach cobbler” and you’ll find a gazillion recipes. Eliminate the ones based on canned peaches or pie filling (yuck), and you still have a lot to choose from. Some are more like what I’d call a crisp, a crumble or even a pandowdy.

I am a daughter of the South, though; the cobbler I learned at my mother’s knee was sweetened fruit encased in a rich Bisquick batter, tender at the core with a sugary crackle on top. And that’s the the sort of cobbler I still prefer.

Of course, I can’t leave well enough alone. For instance: I’m fond of the affinity peaches have for ginger. So today’s cobbler incorporates lots of ginger, in three forms. It’s terrific – sweet and peachy, with bursts of ginger zing. And I’ve greatly reduced the sugar from the 1-2 cups most cobbler recipes call for to just 1/2 cup, because really ripe peaches are plenty sweet on their own and I want them, not the sweetness of the dough, to star. If you have no local source for ripe peaches and must make do with what’s in the supermarket, you may need to ratchet the sugar back up a bit.

Triple Ginger Peach Cobbler

Cobbler ingredients

Ingredients

  • 4 cups fresh peaches, peeled* and sliced, set in a colander to drain off excess juice (reserve the juice)
  • 1/4 cup candied ginger, diced
  • 1 stick butter (1/2 cup)
  • 1 1/2 cups Bisquick
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • Enough milk to make 1 1/2 cups when combined with the juice from the peaches
  • A handful of ginger snaps, crushed to coarse crumbs (I used Trader Joe’s Triple Ginger Snaps because I had them on hand).

Method:

Preheat oven to 350F

Place a large baking dish on a cookie sheet (in case of spills). Place the butter in the bottom and stick it in the oven while you prepare the cobbler.

Combine drained fruit and candied ginger.

In another bowl, combine Bisquick, dried ginger, sugar, peach juice and milk. Stir well to get rid of any lumps.

When the butter is melted, remove baking dish from oven. Pour in the batter. Spoon the fruit-and-ginger on top (the batter will rise up through the fruit as it bakes).

Peach cobbler!Bake for 30 minutes, then sprinkle the crushed ginger snaps on top and bake for another 15 minutes. Test with a knife to make sure the batter is baked through (the knife won’t come out clean because of the peaches, but you should be able to tell if there’s any raw batter left in the middle. If so, give it another 10 minutes or so.)

Serve warm, with or without ice cream. Leftovers, should you have any, make an excellent breakfast.

* You know how to peel peaches, right? Fill a good-sized saucepan with water, bring to a boil and immerse the peaches for no more than 60 seconds. Remove from water with tongs or a slotted spoon, run under cold water and use your fingers to slip the skin right off.

August 8, 2010 at 4:16 pm Leave a comment

Greens and pasta

Pasta with Bacon and ChardWhen I was growing up, greens came to our table in one of two forms:  lettuce (generally iceberg), raw in salads, and – on rare occasions,  what my Southern-bred mother called “a mess o’ greens,” boiled to within an inch of their lives with a chunk of ham hock. The result was salty, greasy and kind of slimy, to my child’s palate.

It may not surprise you to learn that I was not a big fan of greens.

Times change. And to be fair to my mother, who was a terrific cook, her options were often limited to what was available in a military base commisary, which in the late 1950s and early ’60s (yes, I’m that old) did not offer much by way of fresh produce.

Each spring I am reminded how lucky I am to live in a rich agricultural valley at a time when small-scale farming-for-the-market is exploding, and with it the seasonal availability of all kinds of produce, including the leafy greens.

Right now it’s chard, with its vivid, extravegant, crumpled leaves and crunchy rainbow-hued stems. When I encounter the first chard of the season, I have to restrain myself from buying armfuls of the stuff – I’m generally cooking for one, after all, and while chard has enough substance, properly prepared, to make for very good leftovers, there’s no sense wasting it.

Still, while it’s here, I favor chard as a main dish, not a side. And I love this preparation, which I was first served in a Midwestern restaurant, because it’s like a really *good* version of mom’s mess o’ greens, with the salty tang of good pork but crunchy and chewy and just tasty as heck.

I’ve reconstructed the recipe from memory, and these amounts make two hearty main-dish servings or four as a side dish, perhaps with some nice broiled fish or chicken.

Pasta with Chard and Bacon

Ingredients

  • Pasta of your choice (I remember having this with linguine; I made it tonight with rotini. Use whatever substantial pasta you like)
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4-6 slides of thick-cut bacon, cut in half-inch pieces*
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced shallots, onions or leeks, as you prefer*
  • 1 large bunch chard, rinsed, dried and chopped. If it’s young chard, go ahead and chop up the stems, too; for older chard, save the tough stems for making soup.*
  • 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • Shaved Parmesan
  • Salt and coarsely ground pepper to taste

* Locally sourced ingredients.

Method:

Cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup or so of the cooking water. Toss with a drizzle of olive oil to keep it from sticking together and cover to keep warm.

While the pasta cooks, place the bacon pieces in a large , thick-bottomed skillet or pot over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally with a slotted spoon, until just crisp, about 10 minutes. Remove and drain on paper towels or a brown paper bag.

Drain off all but a tablespoon of the bacon fat and return the pan to the stove; increase heat to medium-high and stir in the shallots, cooking until softened. Add the chard, and pour the pasta liquid over it. Stir and toss until the chard begins to wilt, then drizzle with balsamic vinegar and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 5 minutes.

Add the pasta to the cooked chard and toss well; transfer to plates, add salt and pepper and sprinkle with bacon. Finish with a little shaved parmesan. Serve hot.  Enjoy.

Feel free to experiment with proportions; you might like more vinegar, and if the bacon’s salty, you can probably skip salting the dish.

May 25, 2010 at 8:32 pm Leave a comment

End-of-the-season stews

Autumn harvest still-lifeOur farmers’ market is … diminished. With just three weekends left this season, the number of vendors was down sharply this weekend, filling just half the municipal parking lot where the thing is held. It always makes me a little sad, and fills me with “hurry up and buy stuff before it’s all gone” fervor.

On the bright side, lots of the produce available now keeps well, with a little care. Apples, garlic, hard-skinned winter squash can last for a month or more, unrefrigerated, if you keep them in a cool, well-ventilated place. I’m reminded of the tornado shelter at my grandfather’s north Texas home – I’m not sure he ever used it to shelter from the weather, but his wife called it the root cellar, and stored vegetables and home-canned goods there year-round, because it was dark and cool and dry.

Root cellars have gone out of fashion, but I’ve kept apples for months by wrapping them individually in newsprint and setting them in a big, shallow cardboard box, not too closely crowded and unlidded, down in the garage that occupies half the daylight basement under my 1908 home. And I don’t think I’ve ever had a winter squash go bad on me, even sitting for 5-6 weeks in the basket on my kitchen counter. They’re pretty much built for storage.

This weekend, though, I’m focused on the short term, not the winter ahead. I’m in rehearsals through December, which means I leave the house for work at 7:30 in the morning and don’t get home till after 10 at night. If I don’t spend my Sundays cooking, I’ll spend a whole lot more money than I want to eating during the week. So I’m getting back in the habit of preparing good, hearty dishes that reheat well and lend themselves to portioning into containers I can carry to work for lunch and dinner. I try to come up with strong-flavored dishes, packed with nutrition and taste, so I don’t get bored before the week is over.

Stews serve the purpose – and also lend themselves to slow simmering while I go about my other weekend domestic maintenance.

Here’s what’s on the stove today: A rich autumn stew of pork, winter squash and apples, and a spicy vegetarian chili that’s quick to make and wonderful served over brown basmati rice or homemade cornbread. The first is almost entirely made with food I bought at the market yesterday; the second uses local turtle beans I put on to soak before bed last night, but could just as easily be made with canned black beans. These are both nutritionally dense, low-fat dishes, and easy to adjust to suit your own tastes.

The number of servings depends on how hungry people are and whether you’re serving the stew as a one-pot meal or a dinner course.  It looks like I’ll get 6-7 meal-sized servings from of each pot of autumn goodness. With cornbread and rice, I’m set for the week.

End-of-the-Season Stew

Ingredients

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 acorn squash (or other winter squash of your choice
  • 1 lb lean pork, cut in cubes. Most stew recipes call for pork shoulder; I tend to buy tenderloins (because they’re small enough for one person). But you could just as easily use the meat off a few thick-sliced pork chops. Just trim off most of the fat so you don’t wind up with greasy soup.
  • 2 Tbsp flour
  • 2-10 cloves of garlic, minced (I’m using a whole head’s worth, but I love garlic and got a lot of it at the market).
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 3 cups good chicken stock
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp minced fresh rosemary (or 1/2tsp. dried)
  • 1 tsp minced fresh sage (or 1/2 tsp dried)
  • 2 large potatoes, peeled (if you want) and cubed
  • 2 large carrots, sliced into discs
  • 2 tart apples, cored and cubed

Method

Preheat oven to 350F. Cut the squash in half; use a spoon to scoop out the seeds surrounding fiber. Oil the cut halves and place the squash cut-side down on a baking sheet. Bake for 30-45 minutes, until the skin can be pierced by a fork. Remove from oven, let cool enough to handle; peel off the rind (it will come off easily with your fingers) and cut squash into cubes. This can be done the day before.

In a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, heat remaining oil over medium-high heat. Dredge the cubed pork in flour and cook in small batches until browned on all sides. Add the garlic and onion, lower the heat if needed to keep it from scorching, and continue cooking until the onion has softened. Add stock and stir to free any browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Add salt, rosemary and sage, potatoes and carrots. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes.

Add apples and squash. Return to a simmer, then cook, uncovered, until potatoes and apples are tender, about 20 minutes more. Taste, correct seasoning, and serve.

Black Bean Chili

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup applesauce (mine’s homemade)
  • Spices: This is where you get to shine. I like a lot of cumin in my chili, and I like heat; I still have fresh herbs in the garden. You know what you like. If your spice cabinet is modest, a couple of tablespoons of commercial chili powder would work. Here’s (approximately) what I used:
    • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
    • 1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
    • 1/2 tsp dried ground chipotle pepper
    • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
    • 1 tsp fresh oregano (1 /2 teaspoon dried)
    • 1 tsp fresh rosemary (1/2 teaspoon dried)
    • 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme (1/4 teaspoon dried)
    • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 3 cups black beans, soaked overnight (or two cans of black beans, drained and rinsed)
  • 1 (6 ounce) can tomato paste (I’m using my oven-roasted tomato goo)
  • 2 -6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 1 cup chopped fresh mushrooms (optional, but they add a nice heartiness to the dish. I’m using chanterelles)
  • Vegetable stock or water to cover.

Method:

In a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, combine the applesauce with all the herbs and spices. Stir until well-blended. Stir in remaining ingredients, adding just enough stock or water to cover the vegetables. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for at least 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. If it’s not thick enough for your taste, stir in a handful of cornmeal late in the cooking. Serve with cornbread and your favorite chili toppings (chopped onions, grated cheese, sour cream, etc.)

As with most chilis, this is better the second day – and I’ve found the heat doesn’t fully develop until then, so don’t get carried away if it doesn’t seem spicy enough to suit your tastes.

 

November 1, 2009 at 12:39 pm 3 comments

When life gives you apples …

Autumn market haul… make apple crisp!

When the heirloom apples hit the farmers’ market each fall I can’t resist buying lots and lots of them – more, most years, than I can possibly eat.

This fall I’ve put several quarts of homemade applesauce, and more of apple-quince sauce, in the freezer. I’ve been packing an apple in my lunch every day, I’ve baked apples with delicata squash and honey – yum! – and I chopped one up with some leftover chicken and walnuts last night for a great chicken salad.

Tonight I got home from work, wandered into the kitchen in search of something for dinner, saw the four great big Warner’s King apples in the basket on the kitchen counter, and decided it felt like an apple crisp night.

I’d love to give you a recipe, but I don’t actually have one. I’ve been making apple crisp by my mother’s method, which uses no measurements, since I was a kid. It varies every time I make it according to what I have on hand – and what variety of apples I use – but I can’t recall ever having a bad batch.

The ingredients include rolled oats, flour, brown sugar, lots of spices (cinnamon at minimum, but any combination of ginger, cloves, nutmeg and allspice you feel like adding) and a fair amount of butter.

Peel and core some nice, tart cooking apples, cut them in bite-sized chunks, toss them with a little lemon juice if you want to enhance the tartness. Mix up a couple of handfuls of oats with some flour (roughly two part oats to one part flour), brown sugar to your taste and spices. Toss about two-thirds of the mixture with the apples and put them in a casserole (for a juicy result) or a flat baking dish (for more “crisp”). Dot with butter.

Cut some more butter into the remaining oat-flour-sugar-spice mixture till it makes pea-sized lumps. Add some chopped walnuts, pecans or filberts if you want. Sprinkle that evenly over the apples.

Bake at 350F for however long it takes – half an hour to an hour, depending on how big a batch you’re making; the apples should be nice and tender and the “crisp” nice and crispy but not scorched.

Serve it for dessert. Or dinner. Or, hell, breakfast. Hot, warm or chilled, with or without ice cream or cream. It’s all good. If not necessarily photogenic:

Apple crisp

October 14, 2009 at 8:18 pm 1 comment

An Internet recipe box?

Quick one: I just stumbled across a potentially nifty new tool for those of us who have unmanageable lists of bookmarks – or worse yet, heaps of print-outs – of all the great recipes we’ve found on line.

http://www.food.com bills itself as an all-in-one Internet recipe box. It’s still in beta, but it seems to work well: You set up a free account, log in, and start adding recipes from your bookmarks, by searching, or by uploading your own. You can categorize them (I’m starting with an “Eating Locally” and a “Decadence” category, which pretty much tells you all you need to know about me), search, sort – and if you use the right browser*, you can even install a toolbar that will let you instantly add recipes to your box as you find them on the Web.

What it doesn’t do: Let you print, or even see the full recipe, straight from the recipe box, at least with recipes searched from the Web. In some ways, it seems to be a fancy bookmark list.

The “upload your own recipe” feature could be more accurately labeled ‘type in your own recipe.” You can keep them private or release them for others to use. However, it does provide a printable version of the recipe.

Looks useful. I wouldn’t enter my entire recipe collection in it (think of the data entry time!), but I’ll probably start using it to collect new recipes as I find or develop them.

* Don’t get me started about systems that support Firefox but don’t recognize that my preferred browser, SeaMonkey, is built on exactly the same code. Grrr …

May 7, 2009 at 11:19 am Leave a comment

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