January 29, 2013

Beet Winter Hungers

Photo - Mette Nielsen

"The beet was Rasputin's favorite vegetable. You could see it in his eyes," Tim Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume.

Love them or hate them, no one is neutral about beets. Think about it, you can't squeeze blood from a turnip, but beets bleed for us, messing up the counter and trashing white dish towels. It's a bitch to prep beets. You need a little care and a lot of patience. But consider how they've suffered for us, lingering late in the season till they're yanked from the semi-frozen ground to emerge brilliant and sugary sweet. 

Valentines Day is fast approaching, so here is an ode to the surprisingly lovely and very pretty beet. Magenta, pink, striped, and golden, beets make a gorgeous and simple winter salad, side dish, and beautiful soup. They are earthy and rich tasting, dense textured, hearty and satisfying. 

Winter Salad
Serves 4 to 6

Roast extra beets ahead to have on hand for salads, soup and sautes.

3 whole beets, trimmed
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons torn fresh basil or parsley

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Rub a little of the olive oil over the beets and sprinkle with the saot. Set on a baking sheet and roast until tender, about 1 to 1 hour & 15 minutes. Remove and allow to cool. Peel the beets and cut into chunks. 

In a small bowl, whisk together the orange juice and mustard then whisk in the remaining oil. Toss just enough of the dressing in to lightly coat the beets. Season with salt and pepper. Toss in the basil or parsley. Serve at room temperature.

Beet Steak
Serves 2 to 4

At first glance, this looks like filet of beef, glistening, garnished with a simple parsley sprig. But, it is just a simple slice of a fat red beet, slicked with peppery olive oil and balsamic vinegar, sprinkled with cracked pepper and coarse salt. Serve it as an entree on the center of the plate.

1 huge beet
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
Parsley sprigs for garnish

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Rub the bee with a little oil and sprinkle with coarse salt. Set on a roasting pan and roast until tender, about 1 hour 15 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes. It's done when it can be pierced easily with a fork. Remove and allow to cool a little. Peel. Cut crosswise into 2 inch thick slices and serve one or two on each plate. Drizzled with the remaining olive oil followed by the vinegar. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Garnish with the parsley sprigs. Serve warm or at room temperature.

January 9, 2013

Focaccia with Grapes and Rosemary

So this is January, eh?

A hard month, but where would we be without it?  How different would our literature be if our favorite writers worked in warm sunny places? Imagine if Louise Erdrich (oh, do read the The Round House) or David Rhodes (Driftless is a must) wrote their books in L.A.?  Without these dismal days, I might not be reading anything at all. Or cooking, for that matter.

In this slow month, this cold month, I'm looking for ways to play, mostly with dough. It's cheap, it's easy.  Playing with dough, like finger painting and coloring, is good for the right side of the brain. When I'm stuck or frustrated a good thumping of dough whacks me out of my head, whirling me from the abstract, into the visceral and real, and ignites my appetite. Hunger fires the imagination.

The word "focaccia" is derived from the Latin term "focus" which also means "hearth" referring to a place for baking, the center of the house, the gathering place. So it makes sense that making focaccia brings my thoughts back into focus and helps lead me to my own metaphorical hearth, or the center of what it is I'm trying to figure out, while filling the kitchen with yeasty-toasty aromas of freshly baked bread.

Focaccia with Grapes and Rosemary
Serves 6
This twist on the Italian classic uses local concord grapes. You may substitute cranberries for the grapes when they’re in season. 
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
¾ cup lukewarm water
Sprinkle of freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1-1/2 cups grapes, seeded
In a large bowl, stir together ¼ cup of the flour, the yeast and ¼ cup of the water. Let stand until bubbles form, about 20 minutes. Add ½ teaspoon of the salt, the sugar and the remaining ½ cup of the water. Stir in the remaining 1-3/4 cups flour. Turn onto a lightly floured counter and knead until smooth, about 5 to 10 minute, adding just enough flour to keep from sticking. Place in a well-oiled bowl and turn the dough to oil the top. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 1 hour. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
            Punch the dough down and turn out onto a floured surface. Roll out a large oval about ½-inch thick. Transfer to a baking sheet. Make shallow, evenly placed indentations in the surface. Brush with the olive oil. Press the grapes into the indentations and sprinkle with the remaining salt. Bake until golden and crisp.

January 3, 2013

OPR - Other People's Recipes

Eggplant & Couscous

What was your favorite present this season? Mine was the cookbook -- Plenty -- I gifted myself Christmas Eve, unable to resist the cushy cover. A girl can just crawl into this lushly photographed book of sunny flavors. Chapters are clumped by vegetables -- "Leaves"; "Roots", you get the idea. Up until the new year, I only dreamed of vibrant meals though we feasted on ham and cookies. Until ...

Last night, a gang of hungry college kids arrived at my son's last minute invitation and we sprang into action. Short on time and several of the exotic ingredients, we riffed off the recipes to create simpler renditions: ie. in the eggplant dish (on the cover), we substituted plain yogurt for the mix of buttermilk AND Greek yogurt. Lacking za'atar, the Middle Eastern blend of thyme, oregano, savory, sesame seeds spiked with chile, we substituted a sprinkle of sea salt, thyme, oregano and hot pepper flakes. For the couscous dish, we roasted the carrots, parsnips and squash together instead of separately and substituted a good curry powder for the recipe's long list of cumin, coriander, cilantro, turmeric, and chili, etc.. Finally, we cut back on the amount of olive oil in both dishes. The whole dinner came together in less than an hour and was beguilingly bright, light and fresh. 

The recipes here are for 4, though we doubled everything last night; and you could easily triple for a crowd.

Roasted Eggplant with Yogurt Sauce and Pomegranate
Serves 4

2 large eggplants
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, plus more for garnish
Coarse salt and black pepper

1 cup plain yogurt
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 clove crushed garlic
Pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper

Sprinkle of dried oregano, thyme, hot pepper flakes
1 pomegranate, seeded

Preheat the oven to 400-degrees F. Slit the eggplants in half lengthwise and score the cut-side several times with a sharp knife. Brush the cut-side with olive oil, sprinkle with the thyme leaves, salt and pepper and place on a baking sheet, cut-side up. Bake until the eggplant is very soft and browned, about 35 to 45 minutes. Remove and set aside.

Whisk together the yogurt, lemon juice, garlic and salt and pepper to taste.

Top the eggplant with the yogurt sauce, a sprinkle of the herbs and pomegranate seeds, and garnish with a few fresh thyme leaves. Serve warm, room temperature or chilled.

Roast Winter Vegetable Couscous
Serves 4 to 6

2 carrots, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1 large parsnip, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
4 large shallots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch chunks (about 1-1/2 to 2 cups)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons good quality curry powder
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup dried apricots, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 cup couscous
1-1/2 cups vegetable stock or water
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind (preferably Meyer)
Juice of 1 lemon (preferably Meyer)
1 bunch scallions, chopped
1 cup chopped cilantro leaves

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. In a large bowl, toss together the vegetables then add enough oil to coat. Sprinkle with the curry powder and toss to coat. Spread the vegetables out on a roasting pan so that they do not touch. Roast the vegetables until they are very tender and lightly browned, about 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally so they don't stick.

Put the apricots and couscous into a large heat proof bowl. Bring the water or stock to a boil then pour over the couscous and stir. Cover the bowl with a plate or plastic wrap and allow to sit for about 10 minutes. Using a fork, fluff the couscous and toss in the lemon rind and juice, scallions and most of the cilantro leaves, then toss in the roasted vegetables. Season with salt and pepper and more lemon juice if desired.

To serve, toss the roasted vegetables into the couscous, season with more salt and pepper and garnish with cilantro.