Friday, September 27, 2013

A Proper Introduction: Meet the Beet

If you grew up during the 80s or earlier, we probably share similar offensive experiences during our initial close encounters of the beet kind.  Whether they snuck into your buffet plate from the salad bar, were the vegetable part of a meal package deal on school, hospital or military mess hall trays or your elders tried to casually and deviously slip them onto the family table, they all came from the same place: a dusty can from the pantry shelf.  They were rubbery, smelled funny and didn't taste quite right.  The result: many of us despised the root vegetable for years.

This unfortunate canned vegetable consumption turned many folks off to produce.  Canned corn was mushy, canned peas were even more so, canned mushrooms were slimy and all green vegetables had that drab olive cast and unpleasantly pungent flavor that results from overlooking.  Does anyone else remember canned Veg All?  This concoction was comprised of water-packed potatoes, carrots, Lima beans and, if my aging memory serves correctly, celery.  These vegetables were all so overcooked that one could no longer distinguish any individual flavors other than the added salt.  In the words of Alton Brown, not good eats!

Well, folks, it's time to get fresh with your vegetables.  Today, most home cooks have embraced the bold colors, tasty flavors, crisp textures and every nutrient that fresh vegetables have to offer.   Today's broccoli delivers a satisfying crunch and appealing emerald hue when steamed for two minutes.  Green beans are blanched for just moments before their rendezvous with a bowl of ice water to cease the cooking process.  Vegetables are roasted until their edges are delicately caramelized and the flavor nuances reach new heights.  We are finally taking vegetables where no beet has gone before.  With the array of fresh produce that now abounds in our farm stands and markets, combined with today's enthusiasm for cooking and for making healthier choices in our food consumption, canned vegetables need to follow in the footsteps of the dinosaurs.

The above digression was necessary for telling the tale of the common garden beet.  The moral of the story will be evident in this post's concluding paragraph.  You see, beets are not the rubbery maroon discs or strips whose image stayed etched in our memory banks for all of those years.  That was not a proper introduction to the humble beet.  Fresh beets are bulbous-shaped root vegetables, harvested from the soil by long, leafy stems.  Their most popular hue is a deep garnet red, but they are also available in golden yellow as well as with a creamy white flesh striped with deep pink concentric rings.  The stalks of leaves are typically removed immediately after purchase to prolong the shelf life of the beet during storage. 

My preferred method for preparing beets is to peel a combination of red and gold beets with a vegetable peeler, lob off the tough end from which the stalks had grown and cut them into wedges, quarters for smaller beets, sixths for medium-sized ones and eighths for larger specimens.  I deposit the cut beets into a roasting pan, toss them with extra-virgin olive oil, sprinkle liberally with sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper and pop the into a 450-degree oven to roast for 25-30 minutes.   The two-toned result adds a gorgeous, vibrant pop of fall color to the dinner plate.  The texture is tender, but with a slight yield and the flavor is subtly sweet and earthy.

As your foodie friend, I feel it's only fair to pass along two warnings for the before and after phases of beet consumption.  Before eating them, they should be peeled and they need to be diced, sliced or cut into wedges.  Beet juice has an amazing dying power.  It is used as a natural food coloring as well as for some red garment dyes.  It will stain any linen and porous surface that it comes in contact with.  Wear something that you aren't too fond of and, because skin is not at all impervious to the beet's dying effects, purchase a box of latex or other surgical-style gloves to keep on hand for beet preparation.  Process the beets on a dishwasher-safe plastic cutting board instead of your prized bamboo or Boos wooden board that you proudly display on the counter.  Keep all kitchen towels out of reach and make sure that the cut beets or the peelings never touch your natural stone material countertop.  Metals and glass are fine, your knife and roasting pan will be as good as new after washing.  Now for the aftermath: no one ever wants to discuss these matters, but let's keep it light and stay with me on this, it could save you from a health insurance claim squabble.  So you had beets last night.  The next day, sometime after that morning java, nature calls on you to make the daily offering to the porcelain throne.  You happen to glance downward as you reach for the flusher handle and your heart immediately starts to pound in panic.  Enough said, you have now been forewarned.  This is not the time to frantically dial your proctologist.  Similar alarming visual effects may also evoke the notion of either calling your urologist or imbibing gluttonous quantities of water or cranberry juice.  Please refer back a few sentences: beet dye is pervasive. Once your system has completed the digestion of said beets, you'll be right as rain once again.

So how do I feel about beets now?  I love them.  How did I evolve past the aversion?  Several years ago, I was browsing a culinary magazine in search of an interesting vegetable course for the Thanksgiving table.  I came across a recipe that called for roasting the beets with a few other vegetables.  Ask any toddler with picture books, visual aids work wonders.  The publication's glossy photograph made them appear completely different and a lot more savory than what I had previously been exposed to.  When I sampled that first bite on Thanksgiving Day, it was an epiphany.  This was not the same beet that I had wanted to gag on many years earlier.  Tasting is believing, however, so for those of you who remain unconvinced, I urge you to try the basic roasting method described above, or this warm beet salad or the following recipe and see for yourself why you should never trust a dusty can and you should always get fresh with your vegetables.

Herb Roasted Vegetable Medley
2 red beets, peeled and cut into sixths
2 gold beets, peeled and cut into sixths
2 turnips, peeled and cut into sixths
1 large parsnip, peeled and thickly sliced crosswise
3 Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into sixths
6 garlic cloves, peeled
4 shallots, peeled and halved lengthwise
1/3 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons minced fresh sage
Sea salt
Freshly cracked black pepper
Premium quality balsamic vinegar

Preheat oven to 450-degrees.  Place all cut vegetables, garlic and shallots in a roasting pan.  Add the oil, sage, a generous sprinkle of salt and pepper.  Toss until all vegetables are evenly coated with the oil, sage, salt and pepper.  Roast for 30 minutes, stirring the vegetables once halfway through cooking time.  Remove from the oven and immediately apply a light drizzle of the balsamic vinegar.  Serves six.

Food for Thought
In addition to freshly harvested local beets, farm stands are soon to be brimming with Brussels sprouts, apples, butternut and acorn squashes and heads of cauliflower in various striking colors such as purple, lime green and golden yellow.  Visit your local farm stand today and then try my roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon and hazelnuts.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

There's a Moon Out Tonight

With the Labor Day holiday weekend behind us, summer vacationers are retreating back to the chill proof confines of their urban dwellings and folks are back to corporate demands while children reluctantly schlep back to school.  Soon the cooling breezes will carry colorful foliage to coat the ground with a crunching cover where hikers shuffle though.  All of this ambience officially ushers in the fall season and the Harvest Moon.

The full moon that occurs closest to the autumn equinox is dubbed the Harvest Moon.  It was so named by farmers who appreciated its luminescence, which enabled them to carry out their harvesting duties for hours after the progressively earlier setting sun.  Due to the position of the earth at this time of year, the moon rises earlier and thus provides the shortest period of true darkness.   Because it rises even before the day's sun has set, the Harvest Moon takes on a slightly orange cast from the twilight sun.  This year's Harvest Moon occurs on September 19.

Celebrate your local farmers by hosting a Harvest Moon dinner for your family and friends, showcasing the foods and beverages that are produced locally in your area.  Here on Long Island, that's easily accomplished if you reside in central or eastern Suffolk County, a geographical advantage for which I am perpetually grateful.  Many other areas across the United States feature weekend farmer's markets where local growers sell their goods from vending stalls.  With the continual surge of cooking popularity and a quest to eat local, whole foods, the wares go beyond seasonal fruits and vegetables.  Local artisans are producing cheeses, wines, meats, baked goods, honey, salsas, jams, craft beers and jarred pickled goods.

For my fellow Island dwellers, take a round trip across the eastern north fork, where you will run into so many opportunities to procure the makings for every course of the meal.  Farm stands line the main route, offering the last of the summer's vegetables and peaches as well as the first autumn harvest.  Fink's and Lewins farms is one of the north fork's iconic farm stands.  Consider assembling one last heirloom tomato salad platter for a first course and creating a side dish with the season's premier golden butternut squash or ruby red beets.  You may opt to bake one final peach pie, or you might take a break and purchase one of Briermere Farm's famous, luscious homemade pies instead.   While you're there, purchase some freshly baked bread to accompany dinner or to slice and toast for an appetizer.  Catapano Dairy Farm is the answer for your appetizer course, offering an array of award-winning cheeses.  Long island's east end history once hosted duck farms all over the north fork.  Today, Miloski's Poultry Farm provides fresh duck for an elegant entree.  They also peddle a selection of other local poultry, Polish sausages and local eggs.  Woodside Orchards sells an impressive selection of apple varieties as well as their own hard apple cider.  On the subject of libations for your guests, Long Island is home to over fifty vineyards to fulfill all your wine sipping needs.  When you reach the village of Greenport, be sure to stop in at Greenport Harbor Brewing Company for a growler or two of excellent craft brews for the beer aficionados on your guest list.  This only begins to scratch the surface of all of the locally produced edible gems that Long Island has to offer.  For those who reside elsewhere, do a little sleuthing online for your area.  While the selection may be on a smaller scale, there are likely similar offerings that beckon your sampling.

Now that you have brought home all of the ingredients to make your Harvest Moon dinner, set up some outdoor comforts such as logs for the fire pit, blanket throws for late night conversations in the cooling breeze, settings on the table and glassware for cocktail sipping.  Program some tunes and light a few candles.  Patio decoration can also be obtained at the farm stands, which are now bursting with colorful potted mums and brimming with pumpkins, gourds, hay bales and Indian corn.  Rustic wooden bowls of peaches and baskets of apples perform double duty as they decorate tables and provide healthy snacking options.  Hollowed out acorn squash rinds can serve as bowls for nuts or olives.  Orange napkins add a pop of autumnal color to neutral place settings on the table.

What's for dinner?  Whatever you and your guests like.  My menu would consist of:

·      Goat cheese, fig and walnut crostini (recipe below)
·      Autumn punch (recipe below)

·      Grilled boneless duck breasts a honey, orange and sage glaze
·      Roast butternut squash purée
·      Grilled red and gold beets
·      Grilled herbed potatoes
·      Roast Brussels sprouts (recipe here)

·      I would offer a couple of local wines and a local craft seasonal beer, and dessert would be a couple of locally baked pies and cookies.

What if it rains?  Don’t sweat it.  Place all of the seasonal décor indoors throughout the mingling, conversational and dining areas.  Swap out the grilled duck and potatoes for roast duck breasts with garlic, rosemary and fennel instead, and serve that over mashed potatoes.  You can roast the beets and either serve them as is or incorporate them into a warm beet salad. 

Goat Cheese, Fig and Walnut Crostini
1 loaf of Italian bread, bias-sliced thin
Extra virgin olive oil
32 ounces fresh goat cheese
2 pints fresh figs, stems removed, cut into quarters
2 cups walnut halves
¼ cup chopped rosemary leaves
Black pepper

Preheat oven to 350-degrees.  Arrange bread slices in a single layer on baking sheets and brush with olive oil.  Place in the oven and toast until very lightly browned.  Remove from the oven and set aside.  Meanwhile, place the walnuts in a nonstick frying pan over medium heat and toast them until very lightly browned and fragrant.  Remove from the pan and set aside.  In a mixing bowl, combine the goat cheese and figs until the two are incorporated, then mix in the cooled walnuts.  Spread two tablespoons of the goat cheese mixture onto each toasted slice of bread.  Lightly drizzle half of a teaspoon of honey over each, and then sprinkle with freshly cracked black pepper and a pinch of rosemary. 

Autumn Gewurztraminer Punch
1 bottle of Gewurztraminer wine
1 cup apple juice
1 cup cranberry juice
2 teaspoons whole cloves
2 apples, halved, cored and sliced
3 plums, halved, pitted and sliced
2 cups green grapes

In a large serving bowl or punch bowl, stir together the wine and juices.  Place the cloves in a tea leaf ball or in a mesh sac made from cheesecloth and closed with string.  Add this to the bowl.  Allow the flavors to meld for a few hours in the refrigerator.  At serving time, place some assorted fruit into each glass (I recommend pilsner glasses for this one!), then ladle the wine mixture to fill each glass three quarters.  Top off each with a splash of seltzer, give a light stir and serve.

Whether hosting this festive affair outdoors or in, be sure to raise your glasses and gaze up at the impressive Harvest Moon and remember to give thanks to all of your local growers and artisans who made this dinner possible.