Off the Beet(en) Path

IMG_9337It has been about six years since I really started to take food seriously as both a diner and a cook. In that time, I am afraid I have turned into a bit of a snob. I am the girl who shows up to a girl’s weekend with my own fruits and vegetables for the pantry so that I am not forced to eat the packaged goods on site. Or the one who brings side dishes to a non-potluck dinner party so I am assured food that will taste good because I made it. Or the lady who does not do lunch because I am not a dame who can sit around and gossip over artisanal salads, preferring to spend my food budget on new and exciting top chefs in diverse kitchens. Holidays and social occasions that cannot be avoided, which revolve around food, consist of me grazing the crudite platter), waiting for the moment later when I might get home to some real food. I simply enjoy food so much now that I don’t want to waste calories eating things that don’t titillate me to my core and if I have tried it before, chances are I don’t need to try it again. For even if I love a dish, there are so many other dishes to try in my lifetime why bother repeating something I have already had? For the record, I am not one to watch movies more than once either, even if I adore them, because there isn’t enough time as it is on this planet to see everything I wish to.

So when there is an ingredient that I really love I am faced with the perpetual challenge of continually finding new ways to work with it. Beets are a prime example. I love them, and like everyone else in the 1990s, saw them exhausted within a sea of goat cheese and pinola salads prior to becoming one of those over-roasted and wilted tubers glazed in balsamic and sea salt on many a tapas menu in the 2000s. A few years back, while still single, I ashamedly and lazily spent many a dinner hour spooning pre-cooked beets whole from the laminated Trader Joe’s packages in the ready-made deli section into my mouth on the couch with some wine. Because of this, I had recently all but deleted them from my repertoire until I got a hankering for them last weekend after a particularly grueling hike. I didn’t want to just boil and chop and serve in one of the pre-mentioned applications so I scoured Food and Wine magazine’s archives for a twist on the beet-cheese-appetizer combo.

I was delighted by what I found—a starter on multigrain toast that made white flour bread bruschettas pale in comparison. The heartier loaf held up to the infamous, staining and sopping beet juice. The pre-glazing of the boiled beets prior to piling them underneath creamy burrata added a rich and tangy, buttery flavor to the bite that pulled everything together. Eaten as a yummy beginning to an afternoon long feast that included marinated tomato bibb salad and yogurt marinated lamb chops, these beets proved that everything can be improved upon in perpetuity with a little ingenuity and thinking out of the ordinary box.

Glazed Beet and Burrata Toasts
3 beets (about 3/4 pound total)
4 thyme sprigs
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1/2 cup sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 rosemary sprig
Salt
Twelve 4-by-2-inch slices of dense whole-grain bread, brushed with olive oil and toasted
1/2 pound burrata cheese, cut into 12 pieces
12 small watercress sprigs
Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
Flaky salt, such as Maldon, for garnish

In a medium saucepan, cover the beets with cold water. Add the thyme sprigs, black peppercorns and red wine vinegar and bring to a boil. Simmer, partially covered, until the beets are tender, about 45 minutes, replenishing the water if necessary. Drain the beets, then peel and cut them into 1/4-inch dice.

Return the diced beets to the saucepan. Add the sherry vinegar, sugar, rosemary sprig and 1/4 cup of water and bring to a boil. Cook over moderately high heat until a syrupy glaze forms, about 12 minutes. Discard the rosemary sprig and season the beets with salt.

Top each whole-grain toast with a spoonful of the glazed beets, a piece of burrata and a sprig of watercress. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil, garnish with the flaky salt and serve.

NOTE: I didn’t have sherry vinegar so ended up using white wine vinegar. I also substituted gray sea salt for the more expensive Maldon.

 

Sockeye Sings in Earthly Lentils

IMG_8081When I took Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table down from its place on our four-cookbook living room shelf (the other three volumes being Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook, Paul Bocuse’s Bocuse in Your Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated’s The Best Recipe) last week, I was guiltily reminded of my grand intentions for cooking its entire contents for the Cute Gardener and then the slow as molasses journey I have been on to do so. A note card placed inside used as my bookmark, had a lonely four notations of recipes made over the last two years: mustard batons, tomatoes Provencal, olive-olive Cornish game hens and gougeres. I didn’t add the salad nicoise I attempted once minus the actual nicoise olives—for obvious reasons.

How pathetic, I thought! * And then went about remedying the situation immediately.

I chose a dish of Roasted Salmon with Lentils because salmon is one of the top five things I can cook as well as one of the CG’s favorite meals. His own father has told me twice on Christmas that I cook the fickle fish perfectly and I take pride in delivering new ways to adore yet not overly adorn its simple yet complex filets. Of course these days, the CG and I go the full mile in sustainable fish integrity and will only eat the approved varieties so it took a few phone calls to discover that I would have to drive the fifteen miles to another city to retrieve a slab of wild sockeye to fit the bill. But the fish karma worked in my favor regardless as it ended up being severely on sale.

The end result was deliciously earthy, grounding the delicate fish. It reminded me how much I love my lentils, especially the French version simmered slowly with classic carrot, onion, celery and bay leaf.

IMG_8080Because I wanted the dish to be the star and didn’t want to overburden the already hearty lentils with traditional cheese desserts or anything heavy, I settled on a light and tangy avocado tartare that had synchronistically arrived in my Food and Wine e-letter a few days earlier to start the meal. Served slightly below room temperature on small slices of baguette it was a perfect palate primer for the evening.

Now I have five notations on my bookmark and a renewed motivation to step up my cuisine Francaise.

IMG_8084*In my defense, it’s hard to summon the constant desire to cook when I live with a man who can throw pasta in a bowl with some leftovers and make it taste like nirvana; or, whose vegetables from the garden, even when mutant and odd like his recent batch of caulifower, taste better than most things I eat in restaurants. 

Susan Feniger’s Street Food

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For Christmas, I received a copy of Susan Feniger’s Street Food from a friend I had introduced to the author and chef’s Santa Monica restaurant Border Grill.

I have had a strange love/hate relationship with Border Grill ever since moving to the Los Angeles area over a year ago, which is clear from the fact that I have now been there four times which is practically unheard of in a life where I try new restaurants weekly and never repeat even the ones I love. It’s partly convenience, since it’s located right smack downtown in Santa Monica on a street where I have regularly had meetings and play rehearsals, and partly the fault of an article Feniger once wrote in Food and Wine Magazine where she lent out recipes for a party of 30 centering around Asian skirt steak that looked dynamite. I was itching to try her food.

The first attempt was a plate of simple and juicy pork carnitas, a generous and unadorned pile of scrumptious meat with piping hot tortillas and a drizzle of fresh crema that sated my lust for pig. The second attempt was at a friend’s birthday party where I stuck to a small plate of black bean and plantain empanadas, drizzled in the same signature crema that had me craving more for days. But the third time I went, I actually had an official entrée of carne asada tacos that was bland at best, not unlike any order I could pick up in a myriad of chains only accentuated again by that great crema and a trio of well-made salsas. So the fourth time I went on a whim to bide time because I was too early for an appointment, I sat at the bar not expecting much and ordered a plate of the pork nachos figuring I would stick with the pig meat that I already knew was great. I think Susan Feniger would have loved the fact that I was one of four women sitting solo at the bar that night, two of which were asking the bartender for separate sports programs on the overhanging televisions, and one, like me, who was busy writing something in a small notebook. All of us women were enjoying the happy hour prices and both eating and drinking merrily alone.  I even went off my normal pattern and ordered a Negro Modelo beer – beer being something I never drink – because the dark and freezing ale was desperately what I needed to counteract the scrumptious but super salty shredded pork nachos that were again swimming in that crema. I realized a few things then. One, I am in love with Susan Feniger’s condiments, not her actual food. Two, everything in that place is high-octane seasoned to the point that copious amounts of water are needed after every trip. Finally, entrees and dishes are not her strong point as much as the small plates and quick bites that can be enjoyed in such saturated fortifications of flavor without the palate feeling overwhelmed.

Which I guess is what’s perfect about the book Street Food. For the more globally adventurous person who wants to be creative at the cocktail party and is not afraid of spice, it is a great alternative to the normal chip and dip and onion tart fare. A jaunt around the world with Susan delivers snack-sized delights from artichokes and lemon zaatar dipping sauce in India to Tunisian chicken kabobs with currants and olives to Egyptian bus stop kushary to coconut curry popcorn. Maybe not something to pump up the average Super Bowl party but definitely items to throw into a group of dinner guests with a more exotic palate who would be great candidates for the roadside stand in any country. For those who like to sit down and eat proper at restaurants and get the willies by Anthony Bourdain or Andrew Zimmern’s Asian late night in-the-middle-of-the-road forays, this book is not for you.

Although I am a huge fan of multicultural cuisine, I am not a lover of the food truck craze. Because of this, half of the recipes in this book call to me and the other half leave me cold. I will definitely make the honey and turmeric lassi drink and the Turkish donuts with rose hip jam and report on those attempts later.

The biggest gem I took from the book was within the first few pages: a section on “Organizing the World’s Kitchen” for people who like universal tastes but are curious as to what to stock into their pantry in order to be able to whip up and achieve them on demand. Being a lover of Indian, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern flavors this helpful list of salts, sours, sweets, hot and spicy, and mellowers and coolers became an instant grocery list for me.