Friends, Beets, Enemies

Roasted Beet Salad with Feta and Walnuts

I’ve never understood beet-haters. I can fully sympathize with brussels-sprout-haters, for instance, since I even used to be one myself before realizing that a splash of olive oil and a turn in a hot oven make all the difference in the world. Also things like kale (so vegetal! so chewy!) and eggplant (slimy and bitter in the wrong hands) occasionally turn even my stomach, so I can fully comprehend why some people swear them off completely.

But beets? To me they’re nothing but perfect, one of those few miraculous vegetables that manages to cloak a powerhouse of nutrition in a delicious package. So how come millions of reasonable, vegetable-loving folks hate them? Honestly, I can’t even count the number of people I’ve met who are otherwise passionate, equal-opportunity eaters, but don’t even bat an eyelash when proclaiming beets to be the one food they refuse to touch.

So I ask you beet-haters, what is it you detest? Is it the flavor? I know they’re kind of earthy, but so are carrots, parsnips and sweet potatoes, and no one seems to have any issues with them. Is it the color? Granted, it’s intense, and it does admittedly, ahem, haunt you for a couple of days afterward (but that’s all I’m going to say on that topic), and it is a pain to remove beet stains from clothing, dishtowels and countertops, and people who’ve been handling cut beets look like they’ve just finished shooting a scene for a horror movie. Still, several kinds of ripe, red berries do all those things too (well, maybe not the haunting part…) and nobody hates them for it.

I think what’s most likely is that people who think they hate beets just haven’t tried them in the right form. Heck, if I’d only tried them out of a can or jar, I might just hate them too. For one thing, they’re usually too sweet this way, since most manufacturers insist on augmenting their natural sugars to cloying levels. And texturally they’re not the most appealing either, water-logged and flabby, looking like freakish purple potato chips with all those crinkle-cut ridges. What can I say? Beet-haters, if this is the only way you’ve ever experienced them, you most certainly have my sympathies.

But you don’t have my permission to continue hating them. At least, not until you’ve tried my favorite beet recipe. It’s a riff on a French cooked salad, where first the beets are roasted to caramelly softness, then sliced into garnet rounds and tossed with a mustardy, garlicky vinaigrette while still warm. At some point while they’re sitting there those sweet, sour and pungent flavors all sidle up to one another and get comfy, like good friends reunited after a long time apart, but just when you’re starting to fear that all this harmony might get boring, along comes a nugget of salty feta or the crunch of a toasted nut to liven things up. It’s addictive, I tell you; the first time I made this for Manuel, he went from saying, “you made beets… for dinner???” to helping himself to the last few slices when I wasn’t looking. Not bad for a self-described “beet-ambivalent”.

Now, I know beet-ambivalence a far cry from the full-fledged beet hatred many of you subscribe to, but please consider giving them another chance. You may be hesitant to take this advice from me, an avowed beet lover, but think of it this way: maybe, just maybe, there’s a good reason I am. And maybe, just maybe, this recipe marks the start of your life as a beet-lover too.

Roasted Beet Salad with Feta and Walnuts

A word of advice: wear something dark-colored while making this salad (and maybe while eating it too). As careful as you might be, some scarlet-red beet juice will end up on you somewhere. I’m pretty sure it has something to do with different laws of attraction between beets and white fabric, but if you have another theory, by all means share it.
Serves: 6 as a side dish (or fewer, if beet lovers are involved)

about 2 lbs. (ca. 1kg) raw beets

For vinaigrette:
1/4 cup (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup (60ml) red wine vinegar, or to taste
1 heaping tablespoon dijon mustard
1 fat clove garlic, minced
3/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
freshly-ground black pepper to taste

For garnish:
3 oz (85g) sheep’s milk feta, crumbled
1/2 cup (50g) toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped (toasted almonds or hazelnuts are also great)
leaves from a couple sprigs fresh thyme

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Wash the beets, then wrap them in a double layer of aluminum foil. Place on a baking sheet and roast until a knife easily slides through the center of your largest beet, anywhere from about 45-75 minutes, depending on the size of your beets. Unwrap and allow to cool until you can comfortably handle them (they should still be warm, though).

In a small bowl whisk together the vinaigrette ingredients until emulsified.

When the beets are cool enough to handle, slip the skins off using either your fingers or a knife, and cut each beet into 1/4-inch (1/2-cm) slices. In a large bowl combine the warm beet slices and the vinaigrette, using your hands to gently massage everything together (it’s messy, but using a spoon usually results in too many broken beets). Let stand at least 30 minutes for the flavors to mingle – preferably more like an hour or two.

Just before serving, taste the beets for seasoning – they might need another splash of vinegar and/or pinch of salt (though don’t overdo the salt since the feta is quite salty). Arrange the slices attractively on an platter, topped with the feta cheese, walnuts and thyme. Enjoy at room temperature.

Home is Where the Cake is

Buttery Apple Cake-Tart

It’s funny, the things moving teaches you about yourself. Particularly big, trans-global moves – like the two we’ve done in the last year – are as much about the journey of self-discovery as they are about the journey of things. I now know, for example, exactly which of my material possessions are important to me, since paying by the cubic millimeter to retain possession of them – twice – forces you to figure that out fast. I also have a heightened appreciation of the shades of gray between what I can and cannot live without. Like, I now know that I can live without a microwave but I cannot live without a set of handheld beaters, and that I prefer not to live without a salad spinner but that’s considerably more preferable to life without a dishwasher. And as for those little dwarf-sized fridges that I happily waved goodbye to when we left Europe, it seems I’ll force my husband to drive two hours to pick up a fridge I bought on ebay rather than live with one of those again, even if it was provided free with our apartment. But that’s not being unreasonable, is it?

What took me most by surprise, though, was what I found myself doing once installed in each new locale, even before the boxes were unpacked and the new furniture arranged. In both cases I turned on the oven and started baking – which, it would seem, is the only way I can even begin to call a new place home.

To be fair, I often go through baking phases, but a) they rarely happen in summer, since who wants to heat up the whole house when it’s already hot? and b) a baking phase for me is two or three new things, spread out over a month or so. But when I think back to last year and the first few weeks in our cottage, my memory of what it felt like to actually settle in to life in the U.S. is completely obscured by memories of cookies, muffins, and the first scones I’d baked in, like, a decade. At the time it didn’t seem that strange – I probably told myself I was just getting to know our new oven, or trying to win over our new landlords with edible gifts, or even reconnecting with my western homesteading roots, but in retrospect I’m pretty sure there was something else going on – something psychological. The reason I’ve come to that conclusion is because that’s exactly what I’ve been doing here in Germany.

There is definitely something about baking that evokes the feelings of security and comfort we associate with home. I’ve heard stories of real estate agents who pop a tray of cookies in the oven before showing a house – and even, believe it or not, of companies marketing cookie-aroma-in-a-can for time-pressed agents to simply spray around the kitchen. People, apparently, go nuts for it – somehow smelling these things in the air brings up such strong associations for people that they perceive a space not as an unfamiliar assembly of walls and floors and furniture, but as someplace they might actually want to live. It’s as if the aromas of butter and vanilla and yeast tell that part of the brain that for the sake of our own survival keeps us on alert in unfamiliar surroundings, it’s okay, you can relax now – you’re home.

In my case it certainly seems to work, as I’m feeling much more at home here than I was six weeks, five cakes and two tarts ago. Actually it might be four cakes and three tarts – I’m not quite sure. The thing is that one of the best things to come out of my oven is a funny sort of hybrid – it’s made like a cake, looks like a tart, and tastes like a cross between both with a little bit of a clafoutis thrown in for good measure. The original recipe comes from the late Richard Sax’s wonderful book Classic Home Desserts – which, I’ve just decided, shall henceforth be known as my ‘moving bible’ – in which it’s presented as a wonderfully easy, unleavened apple cake you bake in a pie pan. He says “stick a bookmark here, since that’s how much you’ll make this”, and I have to agree. It’s deceptively simple; apart from browning the butter everything can be done in one bowl, which, when bowls are in short supply because all your belongings are stuck in customs indefinitely thanks to the fact that the agent handling your shipment unexpectedly went on vacation, is pretty nifty. But the main reason to love it is because it’s good, really good: crusty, buttery, tangy and sweet.

And of course, a fringe benefit is that it’ll make your house smell wonderful, which in turn will make you feel happy and cozy and safe. Of course, you could just buy some apple cake spray, but I assure you, the real thing is so much better.

Buttery Apple Cake-Tart

This recipe started life as Ligita’s Quick Apple Cake, which is a classic recipe in itself. As things tend to do in my kitchen, however, this evolved, and now it’s a close relative of Ligita’s cake, but definitely its own dessert. For one, I bake it in a shallow tart pan, which allows for maximum crustiness and a somewhat lighter texture. I’ve also taken out the cinnamon, which I felt was masking the delicate flavor of the browned butter, and replaced it with a vanilla bean, since vanilla bean sauteed in brown butter is one of the best things ever, trust me. The result is something really unique, like I said, a cross between a cake and a tart, crisp and soft, buttery, fragrant and fruity. And trust me again, you will want some whipped cream or ice cream alongside.
Source: adapted from Classic Home Desserts by Richard Sax
Yield: one thin, 11-inch cake; serves 8

3 large tart apples, such as Granny Smith, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup (150g) plus 3 tablespoons sugar
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks/180g) unsalted butter
1/2 vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise (i.e. cut a bean in half crosswise, then split the half lengthwise)
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup (140g) all-purpose flour, sifted
1/4 teaspoon salt
Vanilla-flavored whipped cream or ice cream, for serving

Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Generously butter an 11-inch (28cm) nonreactive tart pan or other similarly-sized glass or ceramic baking dish. Toss the apples in a bowl with the lemon juice and 2 tablespoons of the sugar. Spread the apples evenly in the prepared pan.

Combine the butter and vanilla bean in a small saucepan (not nonstick – you need to be able to see the butter change color). Cook the butter over medium until the milk solids are light brown and the whole thing smells deeply nutty, about 7-10 minutes. Watch carefully to avoid burning.

Allow to cool for a few minutes, then remove the vanilla bean (add it to your extract!) and pour the browned butter into a medium-sized bowl, scraping the black vanilla seeds and browned butter solids in too. Stir the 3/4 cup (150g) sugar into the butter. Gently stir in the eggs; stir in the flour and salt just until blended. Spoon the batter evenly over the apples and spread into an even layer. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar.

Bake until lightly golden and crusty, 30 to 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan on a wire rack. Cut into wedges and serve from the pan warm, with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.