I pulled a small bunch of dirty, purply-red globes from this week’s veg bag and a memory came flooding back:
A cold Friday night in Brooklyn … Me, my man and my good friend M around a small table … A bottle of red wine … A white plate of crimson beets, nestled with avocado chunks, splashed with balsamic.
That night at Frankie’s Spuntino, I fell in lust with the velvety splendor of beets.
When I mention beets to people – which I’m known to do, and which explains a lot about my limited social life – the reaction is often beet-ambivalence, but occasionally full-on beet-hate. I can’t claim to understand that (unless you have kidney stones, which, apparently, don’t go so well with beets). I strongly believe that people who do not like beets just haven’t met the right one yet. If you find the right ones, in season – June to October in much of Europe and the US – squeeze them (they should be firm), buy them, cook them lovingly, and remember where you got them so you can go back for more. And don’t be afraid to try something new, like pink and white striated chioggias or golden beets, which can be prepared the same way as the more recognizable red beets.
Despite my current beet evangelism, my relationship with this root (known as beetroot in Europe and the UK) didn’t start as the torrid romance it is today. I first ate them pickled when I was a kid back in Toledo. They came sliced from a can, or intricately and uniformly cubed and shoveled into big tubs at mile-long salad bars, next to the cottage cheese. As I spooned them onto my plate, I always forgot to separate them from the cottage cheese to avoid it turning red.
During a whirlwind one-week business trip to the ‘stans (Kazahkstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan), I was served salads of cubed meats, potatoes and beets, some of them swimming in a luridly pink-tinted mayonnaise dressing. Next, it was the breakfast buffet in Riga, Latvia, where I ate pickled beets with pickled fish, and realized that fish for breakfast was something I’d been missing all my life.
It wasn’t until I moved to England that I first invited beets to come back to my place. This was when I discovered that a beet lover must be a patient lover – beets take a really long time to cook. I would cut off the greens (and save them to use just like chard or kale). Then scrub the beets, cover them in cold water and boil the crap out of them for more than an hour. There have been at least two beet-related saucepan fatalities in my house: I left the beets to boil and they cooked away all the water, scorching the vegetable and the pan. Sadly, I cannot recommend blackened–pan-boiled beets.
Fortunately, my mother-in-law loaned me her pressure cooker and told me it’s the only way to boil beets (that was several years ago, and I still have the pressure cooker, so ‘loan’ might not be the right word). Beets take only about 20 or 25 minutes in a pressure cooker. After they’ve cooled slightly, their skins slip off easily, and I place them in a bowl, slice them if they’re particularly big, and dress them with a bit of balsamic vinegar. They’ll keep for days in the fridge and taste great with just about anything, particularly pickled fish or smoked salmon, but also beef and lamb, or on a salad with feta cheese.
My mother-in-law makes a gelatin mold with sliced beets, which is sweet and visually striking in its red-purple splendor. I don’t see many spectacular vegetable-infused gelatin molds these days – not like in the 1960s edition of the Joys of Jell-O, which I inherited from my late grandma. It includes a recipe for beet salad: horseradish, canned beets and celery suspended in a mound of wobbly purple Jello-O. (According to the back page, for just 50 cents and three Jell-O package fronts, I can get some decorative gelatin moulds to make my own!)
Today, I’m more likely to roast my beets than boil or gelatin-ize them. Again, as with any love affair, it takes time, but (unlike love affairs) most of it is unattended. Get small beets if you can, and avoid really large ones as they’re likely to be woody and bitter. Preheat the oven to around 375F, scrub the beets, and halve or quarter medium-sized ones. Rub with olive oil and sea salt, wrap in foil (or put in a small roasting dish with a lid and some water), and place in the oven for anywhere from 30 minutes (for really small beets) to 1.5 hours (you’ll need to check them now and then). They should be fork-tender when finished. Let them cool and remove the skins (or don’t – I find good quality, fresh, seasonal beets can taste fine with the skins on). Check here or here for other tips for roasting.
This week I mixed my roasted beet quarters with feta cheese and ate them with a green salad and bowl of lentil soup. On another day I had them with crispy romaine lettuce and thin slices of smoked salmon. I know there are millions … okay, thousands of ways to prepare beets, and I’ve only just begun. (Send me your recipes if you have some!)
If you simply don’t have time for a prolonged love affair with beets, just grate them raw on top of a salad. Or go to Frankie’s and order the beet and avocado salad. Who knows … you might just get lucky.
When the English weather gets me down, I head to the 1950s cocktail cabinet we inherited from J’s grandmother. The front pulls open and the top flips up to reveal mirrors, a light fixture and a contraption holding plastic cocktail sticks. If we were more technically savvy we’d make it play Barry White tunes, but for now it opens only to reveal our motley booze collection. This includes a few things we bought, and lots of things left here by friends who moved overseas. Our house was the last resort for items they hadn’t yet disposed of, and, lucky for us, the local charity shop doesn’t take donations of half-drunk Barbados rum.
Rum is the perfect elixir to turn a blustery English day into a carnival! Or at least a tipsy approximation of one. A few weeks ago, the ‘coldest summer since 1993’ pushed me to breaking point. I remembered seeing a box of coconut-pineapple juice in the back of our cupboard – another kind gift left by friends who moved back to the States … over two years ago, as I discovered upon reading the sell-by date. I persuaded myself to pour it away. Fortunately there was a (slightly less old) carton of similar juice in the fridge, which I whirred up with the Barbados rum, coconut cream and crushed ice.
The result was enough to take the edge off my doldrums, but I still felt the many miles between me and a sunny Caribbean beach. So when I walked past Café Tarifa last Saturday, I couldn’t resist the reggae music drifting from inside. I headed in for a Jamaican ginger beer (and some olives, which have nothing to do with the Caribbean, but they were good). I soaked up the vibe for a while but couldn’t linger long, because I was due at a harvest festival at the Barrack’s Lane Community Garden. I was supposed to drop off some jars of damson (sour plum) jam, which my better-half has been whipping up by the vat-full using fruit from our heavily-laden trees. I can’t think of anything less exotic and Caribbean than homemade English plum jam … Yet, to my surprise, when I showed up at the festival there were two Jamaicans giving a cooking class.
I shouldn’t have been so surprised. While Mexican food may be hard to come by here (see previous post, desperately seeking salsa), it’s easy to forget how Britain’s colonial past is reflected in its culinary landscape. During the 1950s tens of thousands of people from the West Indies came to live and work in Britain, and many of them are still here. London’s Notting Hill Carnival is a testament to this, as are Caribbean eateries like east Oxford’s Hi-Lo Jamaican Eating House, which has been a fixture for the past 30 years.
I decided to stick around to see what I could learn about Jamaican cooking. The two chefs were using local, seasonal vegetables grown by Sandy Lane Farm, and a Caribbean leafy green called callaloo, which is grown locally by OxGrow community garden. Suitably inspired, I returned home to plan my own Caribbean-themed feast.
Admittedly, my knowledge of the region’s cuisine is limited: I’ve never actually been to Jamaica, and have only had a few holidays on other Caribbean islands (but I’ve seen loads of movies about islands, which is pretty much the same thing, right?). Despite this, I managed to make a tasty meal that hinted at something remotely Caribbean-ish. It was a pilaf of coconut rice and black-eyed-peas, and Colombo de Giromon, which I think is a fancy name for ‘vegetable curry’: in this case, a mix of squash, sweet potato and greens in a spicy coconut sauce. I adapted these from recipes found in my trusty old copy of Sundays at Moosewood, using produce from our weekly vegetable bag, some chillies grown in our greenhouse, and fresh coriander seeds I “grew” (i.e., accidentally let the cilantro go to seed).
The pilaf recipe is here, but I changed it somewhat: I didn’t use tempeh (because I didn’t have any, but I do recommend it — a soybean product, nice as a meat subtitute); I used white rice instead of brown; and I added shredded carrot to the onion and garlic. The other dish can be found here on another blog. I didn’t use butternut squash, but a mystery squash (which I traded some plum jam for at the harvest fest). I also used a sweet potato, no peppers, and added kale at the end of the cooking time.
The best bit of this recipe was making the Colombo seasoning: I love mashing up fragrant spices with a mortar and pestle. It’s so … primal. Even better was the fact that the recipe called for rum, so having raided the cocktail cabinet and poured a bit in the pot of simmering veg, I took a bit for myself. Surely that’s how it’s done in the Caribbean.
Later this week I’m planning to stop off at the East Oxford Community Centre to taste the Afro-Caribbean lunches made by people from ACKHI (African & African Caribbean Kultural Heritage Initiative), and may also dip into their Afro-Caribbean cake-baking class on Friday.
Meanwhile, I’ve finished off the coconut black-eyed beans and rice, and at the same time Mother Nature has responded to my desperate plea for a taste of the tropics: she sent winds as high as 80 miles per hour to batter Britain. These were the remnants of Hurricane Katia, which swept across the Atlantic last week. After all, nothing says ‘tropical paradise’ like a hurricane.
I left a very nice life in Austin, Texas – friends, sun, big blue sky, soothing music drifting out of every cafe, bar and taco joint. I sold most of my things and relocated to Belgium.
There was the exciting prospect of living in Europe, and the romantic idea of moving to be with the Englishman I’d met at a bus stop in New Zealand just over a year before.
A few months after moving, I landed a job and was settling in well. That’s when I got a hankering for my number one comfort food: macaroni and cheese.
I’m not talking about the fancy Kraft Deluxe or Velveeta Shells and Cheese kind, which cost a few dollars and contain a can of so-called ‘cheese sauce’. My comfort came from the food of my university days: in a little box, with a white packet of shockingly orange powder. I would boil the tiny little macaronis, then mix in the powder with twice the butter the instructions called for, and milk or, if I was feeling saucy, a bit of sour cream. I’d eat it with a side of tomatoes from a can (I don’t know why – something about the acid-y red tomatoes and orange-y mac and cheese just seemed right).
I could get a box of mac and cheese in Brussels somewhere, but it was expensive, and part of the beauty of my favorite comfort food was that it cost less than a dollar a box. Thrift has a flavour all its own.
I wallowed in mac-and-cheese nostalgia for a few days, sharing my woes with my Englishman, who was very patient. His memorable meals from university were of the pot noodle variety – a bit like ramen noodles, which were even cheaper than a box of mac and cheese and probably packed with just as much sodium-filled goodness, but with the added health benefits of MSG. (His other fond food memory from uni was Greasy Joe’s grease burgers. I surmised that these were cooked up by an entrepreneurial heart surgeon, just biding his time before the class of 1988 needed their first bypass operations.)
My man said, “Why don’t we just make mac and cheese?” I guffawed, gave him a ‘yeah right’, and an ‘as if!’. “You can’t just MAKE mac and cheese with ordinary household ingredients. There’s a magic to what’s in that little box. You shouldn’t tinker with magic!”
Of course, I knew it was possible to make macaroni and cheese from scratch. (Unlike pancakes which, when we started university, my good friend D and I were certain could only be made with Bisquick baking mix. Fortunately, we both learned a lot at university.). But I think I was kind of enjoying my melancholy a bit and romanticizing the things I’d left behind in the States, including mac and cheese. So I was resistant.
This was when I discovered some of my man’s most wonderful qualities: his mix of practicality and possibility, combined with endless creativity. He can look in a dumpster (in the UK, known as a skip) and see the makings of a nice shelving unit in which to store our cookbooks (when I came home last week from a day in London, he was hammering this very thing together, which now sits snugly next to our fridge). And he can look at a bag of pasta and some milk and cheese and envision my ultimate comfort food. He explained that, at university, the mother of one of his friends insisted on teaching them to make a white sauce, which she claimed would be a most useful culinary tool for the boys as they made their way through life. She didn’t mention that it could also be the way to a girl’s heart.
In less than 30 minutes he’d whipped up a beautiful dish of pasta and cheese, topped with bread crumbs baked to a golden brown. I was enchanted. It was nothing like the mac and cheese I loved from the States. For one, it wasn’t fluorescent orange. But it was very tasty. And though I was deep in my melancholy over the things I’d left behind, this dish was really good and supremely comforting.
Eight years have passed and homemade mac and cheese is now a staple in our weekly menu, usually embellished with a seasonal vegetable from our veg bag. In honour of my man and the love that was forged from semolina and a basic white sauce, I’d like to share with you our recipe for Leeky Mac & Cheese.
Boil some dried pasta. Any kind will do (shells, ziti, spirals, or, if you’re feeling wild, actual macaroni). We usually cook up 125 grams (1/2 cup) of dried pasta per person. Chop up a vegetable of your choice. We almost always have great leeks in our veg bag, so we chop those up (after cleaning the dirt from between the layers – they can be a dirty little vegetable), or cauliflower, broccoli or greens such as kale. Part way through cooking the pasta, toss in your chopped vegetable and let it boil.
While that cooks, melt a tablespoon of butter over medium heat and in it brown a tablespoon of flour, stirring constantly (this is a roux). When it turns golden and starts to smell nutty, whisk in a cup or so of milk. Keep whisking for a while, or until your hand gets tired. Keep the heat low to medium, and eventually it will start to thicken (sometimes I lose hope and am sure it won’t thicken, then, just as I’m about to give up, it does; I’m sure it’s just chemistry, but I like to think it’s magic). Now you have your basic white sauce (you may use it to find love one day). Add a cup of shredded cheese (we usually use ordinary English cheeses like cheddar or Red Leicester, but most any kind will do, and if we have a bit of blue cheese, feta or something else on hand, we’ll throw it in), a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, some pepper and (optional) sea salt.
Combine the cooked pasta and sauce.
Now for an optional step: tip the concoction into a baking dish. Top with bread crumbs and a bit more shredded cheese. Since my hubby makes bread each week, we usually have crumbs and sesame seeds in the bottom of the bread bag and all over the counter top and cutting board. We sweep these into a small container to save for our mac and cheese topping. Or we grate the end of a loaf of bread with a cheese grater. (We rarely have white bread on hand, but if I’m being honest, white bread crumbs are the best).
With your toppings in place, grill/broil in the oven just for a few minutes (hard to justify firing up the oven for just five minutes, but it really is worth it; we have a little pizza oven that only takes a few minutes to heat up. It’s great for browning the mac and cheese, as well as making bubbly cheese on toast … mmm). Next time, we plan to use a little blow torch to brown the top (the kitchen kind, that is). If we don’t burn down the house, I’ll let you know how it goes.
Enjoy it with the one you love (even if that person is yourself).