Walk-Away Beets: Recipe for Diversion

I work at home. Translation: I love a distraction. The kitchen? Definitely the number one destination for diversion.  Even on days when recipe developing is not on my to-do list, I like to wander in to my favorite room and concoct a little something every few hours. Something quick, something that might work for our dinner later.  Even better, something that might last for a few days.

Roasted baby beets (so ruby-red pretty) are the ultimate in quick-to-make,  slow-to-cook vegetable condiments.  By vegetable condiments (no, I haven’t lost my mind) I mean stuff like caramelized onions and roasted tomatoes—things that are so great to have in the fridge for tossing in salads, onto pizzas, into tacos—that sort of thing. Okay, so maybe roasted beet wedges are not quite as versatile as roasted tomatoes, but they do juicy-up a salad and give you a great excuse to warm up goat cheese or to toast pecans (just add arugula and lemon vinaigrette). Plus, maybe you’ve got excess CSA-beet syndrome like me. Remarkably, mine (wrapped in a damp cloth and stored in a zip-top bag) have kept for months in the veg drawer of my fridge.

But today, icy-blue cold as it is outside, it just seemed like a good opportunity to turn on the oven. I knew I wouldn’t feel too guilty spending the 10 minutes it takes to quarter a pound of baby beets (no peeling necessary–that skin is perfectly edible when roasted), toss them with a little olive oil and salt, throw in a few herb sprigs, and wrap them up in a tidy little aluminum foil packet.  Inside the foil, they steam-roast (getting both tender and caramelized), and you don’t need to do much more than pop one in your mouth after they come out of the oven.

There is one extra flavor step you can take. This morning, I let mine cool and then dunked them in a marinade-ish dressing of orange and lemon juices, a little vinegar and maple syrup, and a bit of chopped fresh mint. They’ll loll around in that dressing for days, soaking up flavor in a bowl in the fridge, making themselves coyly available to the nearest taker.

 

Walk-Away Beets

 Serves 4

1 pound baby beets, washed but not peeled, ends trimmed, halved or quartered to all be about equal-sized wedges

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

½ teaspoon kosher salt

6 tiny sprigs of thyme, short branches of rosemary, or little clusters of sage

For the marinade:

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons fresh orange juice

¼ teaspoon white balsamic vinegar

¼ teaspoon maple syrup or honey

kosher salt

2 teaspoons roughly chopped mint, cilantro, basil, parsley or a combination

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a small roasting pan with aluminum foil, and measure out two other large pieces and arrange them in a “+” inside the pan. Toss the beet wedges, the olive oil, the salt, and the herb sprigs together in a mixing bowl. Arrange the contents of the mixing bowl in the center of the intersection of the two pieces of foil, and fold the foil up to form a tighly wrapped package.

Roast the beets for 1 ½ hours. Carefully avoiding the steam, lift the foil away to peek at the beets and to skewer one or two with the tip of a paring knife. If the knife slides in easily (and the bottoms of the beets are wrinkled and brown), they’re done. If not (and they often need more time), reseal the foil package and continue cooking for 20 to 30 minutes more until tender.

Let the beets cool a bit, toss all the marinade ingredients together, combine the marinade and beets, and stow in fridge for future snacks. Or add to your dinner salad of arugula, mache, or mixed greens with toasted nuts.

Playing Dress-Up: Roasted Brussels Sprouts Get Spiffy with Tangy Brown Butter

 

By now, you’ve probably drunk the koolaid and are indoctrinated into the magical powers of roasted brussels sprouts. This  ordinarily whiffy and less-than-taste-bud-pleasing vegetable gets a new life from the alchemy of the oven. The roasted result is nutty-delicious, the texture of the leaves fluttery-flaky-crispy, and the possibilities for seasoning endless. And shoot, cooking them is so damn easy. Maybe too easy–sometimes it’s tempting to forget that there are pitfalls to roasting brussels sprouts. Number one: They can dry out. To avoid this, cut your sprouts in half (not in quarters), and roast them cut-side down. This allows the bottoms (or cut-sides) to get caramelized, but also keeps moisture from escaping. Normally, I like to spread veggies out when roasting, but a little coziness is okay when roasting sprouts. All that togetherness means they steam a bit while roasting.  I even use a pyrex baking pan sometimes, instead of my usual roasting favorite–the heavy-duty sheet pan.

Lastly, don’t forget the flavor boosts. You can add onions or shallots or hearty herbs to the roasting pan, but lately I’m liking the option of adding flavor after the sprouts are cooked. I make a brown butter and spike it with lemon or lime and maple or honey….some fresh herbs, and definitely nuts. Nuts. Nuts. Nuts. No flavor pairs as well with roasted brussels sprouts as toasted nuts–especially hazelnuts and pecans. (If you don’t like nuts, no worries, though. Spiked brown butter is just fine.) Brown butter is easy to make; you simply melt butter until the milk solids begin to brown. Keep an eye on things though, as the brown butter will quickly darken and will eventually burn if ignored.

For this recipe, choose smaller sprouts, and beware those monstrous mini-cabbages masquerading as sprouts in the grocery store (not sure where they come from). The smaller ones will cook more evenly throughout.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Nutty Lemon-Maple Brown Butter

Serves 2 to 3

——————————————————————————–

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
10 ounces small Brussels sprouts, cut in half
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped pecans, walnuts, or hazelnuts
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice

——————————————————————————–

Heat the oven to 400°F. Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in the microwave or in a small pan on the stovetop. Toss the Brussels sprouts with the melted butter, the olive oil, and the kosher salt, and spread them in one layer, cut-side down, in a heavy-duty baking pan or casserole dish (Pyrex is fine).

Roast the sprouts until they are deeply browned on the bottom and tender when poked with a paring knife, about 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining tablespoon of butter with the chopped nuts in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir and watch carefully until the nuts and the butter turn a light golden brown. Remove from the heat, pour in the maple syrup and lemon juice (the syrup will immediately boil and reduce), and scrape out into a heat-proof dish (to prevent further cooking). The mixture will be syrupy.

Pour and scrape the nut-butter-syrup over the roasted sprouts, toss well, and serve warm.

The True Cost—and Reward—of Fresh Food: Time Well Spent

The hour I spend picking green beans, sunflowers, and cherry tomatoes at my CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) is the most blissful hour of the week. I usually arrive at the farm around noontime on Tuesdays. The sun is high and hot, and the little ache in the small of my back as I crouch low to hunt for beans reminds me that I’m not in the greatest shape. Some days, as I trek back to the farm stand to collect the rest of my share, my boots squish-squish through deep muddy trenches left behind after a recent deluge. Back home, I find my jeans caked with dirt, pollen, and grass stains. I have Humid Hair, stupidly unbehaving. I am happy.

I unpack my treasures and focus for another hour on washing greens, arranging flowers, rearranging the refrigerator, hauling stems and trimmings to the compost pile. Work like this is so engrossing that it is impossible to entertain the usual distracting conversations in my head. I relax without knowing it. Beans are piling up, so I decide to “put some up” – the expression my grandmother used for freezing vegetables for the winter. It has taken me 47 years and a mid-life course-change to do something she did every summer of her adult life.  I put the beans in boiling water for 2 minutes, transfer them to an ice bath, let them dry, spread them out on sheet pans to freeze, and pack them away in freezer bags.

I know I won’t be able to eat those ripe tomatoes fast enough, either, so I decide to roast them, long and slow and drenched in olive oil. After only a few minutes of prep, the tomatoes take care of themselves while I get back to work at my computer. In a few hours, what emerges from the oven is something so deeply caramelized, so unctuous in texture, and so beautiful (in a decidedly rustic way), that it is hard not to eat them all instead of popping them in the freezer. (Check out my recipe for roasted tomatoes on finecooking.com.)

My CSA experience has been so pleasurable, that—typical me—I’ve lately been wanting the whole world to get in on it, too.  (Find a CSA near you.) Why not? The usual argument against sustainable food is that it costs too much; but for once, I get to poke a little tiny hole in that argument. My CSA share (which I pay directly to the farmer before the season gets going so he has operating money upfront) is a bargain. I opted for a small share for the full season – $465 for 24 weeks – which averages out to a little more than $19. (If I had opted for just a 10-week share, it would have been about $25).

Last week, this is what I got in my small share:  ¾ pound potatoes, ¾ pound baby carrots, ¾ pound tomatoes, ½ pound red onions, ½ pound green beans, ½ pint raspberries, 4 beets, 1 green pepper, 20 cherry tomatoes, 1 fennel bulb, 10 kale leaves, 1 large bunch fresh basil (with roots), 1 small bunch thyme and parsley, 1 head lettuce, 1 cantaloupe, ½ bag mixed salad greens. Plus: 6 sunflowers, and 1 large bunch mixed flowers.

Just for kicks, I priced out this same list of ingredients at a national chain grocery store. Even though the produce looked so dismal that it could have been picked in the last millennium, the total still wound up being more than the CSA: $30, without the flowers. And you can bet very little of that $30 (unlike all your CSA dollars) is going directly to farmers.

I know this is just one needle-in-the-haystack example, that local and organic food is still generally more expensive than conventionally grown food. (Expensive, that is, dollar-wise, though much more economical in the long run when compared to the health, safety, waste, and fuel costs associated with “cheap” food. But for the sake of argument, what if it weren’t all about money? What’s the impediment? Scrolling back up to the top of this blog, you can see the answer in black and white: Time and convenience. Joining a CSA is a commitment, and a bit inconvenient.  I probably spend two to three hours every Tuesday gathering, washing, and storing vegetables. Sometimes I spend more time than that preserving food I know I won’t be able to eat in the week. And then, of course, I’m committed to cooking dinner at home most nights—dinner that always has fresh vegetables in it. But, ironically, those hours I spend and those meals I prepare are also the relaxing, delicious, and gratifying rewards that make my life better, simpler, sweeter. Without making the commitment, I might never have known.

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post Green page, on September 3, 2009.

Vegetables, flowers, and serenity with Susie Middleton