Saturday, August 22, 2009

2009, Summer of the Beet

I'm starting to get something of a reputation for cooking one of the world's most humble and underappreciated foods: the beet. And I'm fine with that. I'm especially fine when I visit tables and I hear the common refrain, "I hate beets, but..."

I grew up eating beets directly from our garden, so I never understood why people dislike them so until I was a teenager when my family ate at a Holiday Inn, probably because my grandfather who had terrible taste in food wanted to eat there. The beets on my plate were disgusting and the rest of the food wasn't much better. My parents explained to me that they were canned beets, something I had never eaten before. Gross. I understand where you beet haters are coming from. Now I ask you to put aside your hatred and read on.

Back to the present and our annual Harvest Dinner this past week when we celebrate the hard work of our friends Gene and Beth Nowak at Mayfair Farm by putting on a multicourse vegetarian menu using only the produce from their farm. It's our way of thanking them for supplying us in good weather and bad, year in and year out.

I was determined to put on an entirely new menu this year, largely because we have the same devout customers attending from year to year and I wanted to show them some new dishes. Because this summer of 2009 has been abnormally cool, we have been blessed with fresh baby beets all summer, and this is unprecedented in my lifetime. To have baby beets coincide with the height of summer produce (corn, peaches, tomatoes, peppers) season just doesn't happen and I wanted to take advantage of that.

As I mentioned at the start of this meandering post, I'm getting a reputation for beets. It's not intentional: I assure you that I am not proselytizing for beets in any way. It's just that I cook what I like and I like beets. I like beets a lot. And so do our customers.

My Baby Beet, Goat Cheese, and Walnut Salad is the simplest thing to make and it is so delicious that customers actually decide to come to dine with us based on whether this salad is on the menu. I quote a customer's email to me: "If I wasn't already married and there had been a preacher in the house, I would've married the beet, walnut and goat cheese salad." This seems a bit extreme, but there is no denying that this salad is one of our top five most popular appetizers ever. Beet haters: understand that this is a beet dish so popular they'd be after me with a noose if I suddenly stopped making it.

Each year before the Harvest Dinner, the speculation starts about the menu. I always keep this menu a secret because I want to surprise everyone. On market day before the dinner, I see everyone peeking in the back of my truck to see what I am taking back to the restaurant. And people will have been bugging Beth for weeks about the menu. There was no hiding that I was serving beets—a very significant quantity of beets. And so I knew that in no way could I put the beet, goat cheese, and walnut salad on the menu because that would be what everyone expected.

In the end, I had three really neat ideas and couldn't make up my mind what to put on the menu, so I did a trio of all three ideas, which you see here. On the left is a beet chutney, more properly called as my Indian friends would remind me, a beetroot pickle. In the center is one of my goat cheese truffles, in this case with roasted figs and roasted beets, rolled in crushed walnuts. On the right you see BBQ beets, about as inspired an idea as I have had in a very long time. Its genesis lies in a conversation that one of the cooks and I were having during a brainstorming session on the deck. He was talking about a dry rub of brown sugar and pimentón for something and somehow I got the idea of making it into a sauce for beets. The result: primo!

Several people asked for the recipe for the beet chutney and here is my recreation as best as I can recall, scaled to human size, rather than the 100-person batch I made this week.

Beet Chutney

2 pounds beets (two nice bunches)
1 tablespoon mustard oil
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 yellow onion, finely diced
1 poblano chile, finely diced
1 green Thai chile, finely minced
3 curry leaves
2 tablespoons ginger, finely minced
2 tablespoons garlic, finely minced
6 green cardamom pods
6 black cardamom pods
2 teaspoons fenugreek seeds
1 tablespoon ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup rice vinegar
3/4 cup brown sugar
salt and black pepper to taste

Well, isn't this a prodigious list of ingredients? If you cook a lot of Indian food as I do, you'll have all these ingredients already. If not, there's no time like the present to start!

Cut the tops off the beets, leaving about an inch of stem attached and place the beets in a single layer in a foil packet on a sheet pan, and then roast the beets in a medium oven until tender when pierced with a knife. For golf ball or smaller beets such as those shown above, this will take a half an hour or so. Let the beets cool in the foil packet until they are cool enough to handle, but still warm. Wearing gloves, slice the stems off the top of the beet and squeezing the beet gently, slip the skin right off. Trim the root and dice the beets.

Next, heat the mustard and vegetable oils in a heavy bottom pan big enough to hold the beets, until the oil is almost smoking. Add the mustard and cumin seeds and cook until they really start popping, like popcorn. Quickly add the onions and cook until the edges are starting to brown, then add the rest of the wet ingredients: the poblano, Thai chile, curry leaves, ginger, and garlic. Cook a few minutes longer until the onions are nicely caramelized.

At this point, add all the remaining dry spices, the brown sugar, and the vinegar. Mix well. Add the diced beets and turn the flame down. Let the mixture simmer for 20 minutes or so to come together and until the mixture is almost dry. Adjust the sweet and sour balance with more vinegar or sugar as necessary. Adjust the spice level to your taste. Correct the salt and pepper seasoning.

Although you can serve this immediately, it is much better if it cures in the refrigerator at least for a day and preferably for several days.

Variations. I often use tamarind instead of vinegar and frequently I add a dried fruit for sweetness, such as golden raisins. For texture, sometimes I will add lotus seeds.

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