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!

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

Tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes

Ripening tomatoesI haven’t quite reached the point where I have so many ripe tomatoes that I need to start cooking them, or to where I’m bored with the basics (BLTs!), but I’m getting 3-4 ripe ones a day out of my modest garden, and I know some of you have a lot more.

So here’s a quick rundown on some great things to do with “excess” tomatoes while they’re ripe and ready to eat. I’m going to link to other people’s recipes, because (a) I’m feeling lazy and (b) it’s almost time for dinner, which will include a helping of …

Tuscan Bread Salad. This is a late-summer staple at my house, and it’s not bad in the winter made with good-quality canned tomatoes, well-drained. There are lots of variations on the recipe, many of which call for soaking the bread till it gets mooshy. I prefer it this way, sometimes substituting balsamic vinegar for red-wine vinegar and I like to use rustic whole-grain bread. Add some chopped cucumber if you like, or even canned tuna to make the dish a meal. Fast, easy and absolutely delicious.

Roasted Vegetable Ratatouille – Classic ratatouille is a vegetable stew; I prefer this version, which roasts the vegetables and then combines them in a rich, smoky-sweet dish. The tomatoes and eggplant are central; everything else is optional, and you can experiment with adding mushrooms, pearl onions and other seasonal veggies.

Grilled Heirloom Tomato and Mozarella Sandwiches with Green Tomato Gazpacho – I stumbled onto this a while back and it’s a great new harvest-season take on good old grilled cheese and tomato soup. Make one, the other or both, depending on how many tomatoes you’re blessed with.

And then there’s the Easiest Pasta Dish in the World: Chop up some room-temperature tomatoes. Add fresh basil, a little salt and a drizzle of olive oil. Cook the pasta of your choice and top with tomatoes. Cheese is optional.

September 12, 2010 at 5:19 pm Leave a comment

Now I’m hungry for eggs and potatoes

Over at The Mom Food Project, Serene posts about Spanish tortillas – not the flatbread sort, but the oven-baked omelette of egg, potato and onion. And me with no potatoes in the house.

August 30, 2010 at 6:45 am Leave a comment

Harvest dinner: Fasolakia

FasoulakiaHarvest season is in full swing, and the only thing better than having my own garden right now is knowing other gardeners who planted things I didn’t get around to planting this year. Because it seems like all of us overestimated something, and food-swapping is happening all over the place. Last week I offloaded a bunch of cherry tomatoes and a half-dozen lemon cucumbers on some friends at work, and picked up a nice zucchini someone had left in the break room.

I love green beans, but my garden isn’t laid out well for growing them. The border along the backyard fence which once made a nice spot for pole beans is now fully occupied by raspberries (poor me). So it was great to hear that my friends Debra and Gary had too many green beans. I swung by their place on the way to run errands this morning, and they weren’t home to thank, but they’d left a nice big bag of them on the porch for me.

And I have tomatoes, finally. Quite a few tomatoes, in fact, having got through an early scare with blossom-end rot by side-dressing the plants with lime and keeping to a regular watering schedule.

In my kitchen, the coincidence of fresh green beans and ripe tomatoes  means one thing: Fasolakia.

This Greek dish is so easy – and so flavorful – that I can’t let a harvest season go by without making big pots of it. I always mean it as a side dish; I always eat the first big bowl all by itself.

Here’s my recipe, such as it is. It’s endlessly adaptable and forgiving, and you can adjust it to your tastes – or your harvest. Diced potatoes are traditional, some people like to add summer squash, and I change up the herbs depending on what’s thriving in my garden at the time. Heck, you can make it in the middle of winter with frozen green beans and canned tomatoes if you like. But try it with fresh, while the season is high. Trust me on this.

Fasoulakia

Ingredients

  • Olive oil
  • One medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 pound of fresh green beans (or more, or less), stringed if they need it, cut into bite-sized lengths
  • Minced garlic (you know how much you like. I use at least 3-4 big cloves)
  • 1 pound of ripe tomatoes, cut in chunks. If you want it to look prettier, I suppose you could peel them (dip the fruit briefly in boiling water and the skins will come right off), but the skins add a lot of flavor and good nutrients.
  • A big handful of fresh Italian parsley, chopped
  • A generous amount of oregano and thyme. Dried is OK. Fresh – at least a tablespoon of each, minced – is better. If you prefer other herbs – basil, for instance – go for it.
  • Generous grinding of black pepper

Method

Pour some olive oil into a large, heavy-bottomed skillet – enough to coat the bottom; more if you like (the traditional Greek recipe often calls for up to a cup of oil!). Heat to medium and toss in the onions, cooking until they begin to soften.

Add the green beans and garlic; stir to coat with oil and cook for 10  minutes to give them a head start.

Add remaining ingredients, bring it all to a boil, and then lower the heat and simmer away, stirring occasionally. After about 20 minutes total cooking time, check beans for tenderness; continue cooking until they’re quite soft but not mushy. (Note that the traditional Greek dish, which uses much more olive oil and often substitutes canned tomatoes or tomato puree for fresh, turns out quite soupy; this doesn’t, but the flavors are startlingly good).

Serve hot or lukewarm – or even chilled (that’s how I usually eat the leftovers). Great with grilled lamb, pork or sausages or all by itself. Got vegans to feed? Feed them this!

How many does it serve? That depends on whether you’re serving it as a side dish or main course, but this amount could satisfy 3-4 people – or 2 really hungry ones – eaten all by itself.

August 28, 2010 at 7:15 pm 1 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

Hot weather food

Sesame crusted albacoreThe temperature here hit somewhere between 100 and 102 today, depending on which weather site you believe. All I know is it was hot enough to keep me indoors all day, half wishing I hadn’t set that lovely piece of Pacific albacore to thaw in the fridge last night, because I could just as easily have dined on salad and fresh blueberries.

But thawed it was. I’d originally planned to grill it, but by dinner time it was still too hot to mess with charcoal. So I chose a recipe that requires no thought, virtually no prep and under five minutes at the stove.

If you’ve never tried tuna rare, you should. Tender and meaty, hot on the outside and meltingly warm at the core, it’s absolutely delicious. The trick is getting the best possible tuna, and that’s not hard to do in Oregon. Albacore season runs from April through October, and modern fishing practices include shipboard freezing that results in fish that’s “fresher” than much of what’s sold as fresh in the supermarket.

If you’re worried about mercury in tuna, troll-caught albacore is a good choice. Troll-caught fisher are much smaller – and younger – than the large fish that typically go into canned tuna, and thus have had less time to absorb mercury; tests have shown that troll-caught fish are low in this toxic compound.

Pan-seared, sesame-crusted tuna

Ingredients:

  • Thick albacore or ahi tuna steaks, fresh or thawed
  • 2 Tbsp oil
  • Juice of 1/2 lime
  • 1 Tbps black sesame seeds
  • 1 Tbps white sesame seeds

Method

Place the tuna steaks in a plastic bag with 1 Tbsp oil and the lime juice; seal bag and turn several times to coat the fish.

Mix sesame seeds in a shallow bowl or saucer

Heat the remaining 1 Tbsp oil in a skillet or grill pan over medium heat.

Remove tuna from bag and press into the sesame seeds, covering all sides

Cook in skillet for a scant 2 minutes per side. Fish will be rare and pink in the middle; you can cook it longer if you prefer your fish done through, but it won’t be as good.

Serve with a dollop of wasabi mayonnaise and a light salad. Mine was a mix of locally grown lettuce and arugula topped with heirloom tomatoes and sliced, grilled miniature eggplants from my garden, dressed with nothing more than a little sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Fantastic, and almost effortless.

August 14, 2010 at 7:03 pm Leave a comment

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

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