Saturday, October 27, 2007

Beets: Sweet

How could you not like a vegetable that is simultaneously considered an aphrodisiac and all-around medicinal superstar, and when cooked and peeled glistens like a jewel and tastes like buttered silk? That comes in purple, gold, and pink-and-white striped packages? This is the not-so-humble beet, excellent source of sugar, dietary fiber, folic acid, minerals, and antioxidants like vitamin C. Beets are one of the few vegetables I liked as a kid (along with their less sugary but also sweet friends, corn and carrots), but when I started cooking I really came to appreciate them. Like a reliable dinner party guest, they can blend in anywhere and keep up their end of the conversation.
That is, pickled beets and borscht are only a few of their many amenable talents. They or their juice add intense color (and sweetness) to pasta, custards and ice creams, broths, and cakes; they are even used rather widely to enhance reds in commercial food production. Beets can be candied, pureed, or grated raw. They have a natural affinity for similarly hard vegetables and fruits, cooked or not: carrots, apples, pears, radishes, jicama, celery root. They love acid—any vinegar, especially sherry or balsamic, and orange, lemon, or lime—and spices like ginger, black pepper, allspice, and chili. They are good w/ nuts and with most soft cheeses like blue, goat, and mozzarella. They are at home with meat or fish. And, of course, you can make wine.
A basic and infinitely variable combination of flavors and textures that I like is beets with corn and goat cheese. I use it for my favorite pizza in the world (after the simple Margherita, of course), a grilled pizza with a smear of tomato sauce topped with beets, onions, corn, goat cheese, and a sprinkling of parm and basil. If I have time, I cook all the vegetables on the grill. Sometimes, as in the photo, I finish the pizza indoors, either in the oven or on top of the stove on my trusty old Calphalon. I love the beet/corn/goat cheese combo so much that I often eat it as a salad with a sherry vinaigrette, or make some sort of taco or egg or stuffed beef dish with it.
Local beets are available spring through fall. Buy beets that are firm and of uniform shape, and that look, even when dirt-covered, smooth and purple rather than woody; the leaves should be fresh and sprightly. Try to cook them as soon as possible after buying; it is better, in my opinion, to store them cooked rather than uncooked. If you do refrigerate them before cooking, cut the leaves off a few inches from the beetroot (the color starts to bleed as soon as you cut into the root), do not wash, and store in a paper bag in a low-humidity bin. To cook, roasting is the way to go: Preheat oven to 400 F (for a few beets, I use the toaster oven). Trim beets close to the root. Place each beet onto a rectangle of foil; roll up and twist the ends. I don’t season them before cooking because who knows what I may want to do with them, but you could, with a little salt, pepper, and olive oil or butter in the packet. Roast until easily pierced with a paring knife; depending on the size of the beets, this could be 20-40 minutes. If not using immediately, I throw the foil packets right in the fridge until I want them, up to several days. When ready for them, unwrap and rub the skins off with your fingers.
The late fall beets are a nice size and shape—and luckily for me, there is still corn, both the bicolor variety Providence and white variety 86. I consider goat cheese to be a staple, so that’s on hand. I have my favorite Mexican chorizo, El Popular (o.k., I consider that a staple, too), Serranos, and coriander. I’m hungry for breakfast, so make these sweet, sour, spicy taquitos.
Triple S Breakfast Taquitos
This makes enough for about 8 taquitos, with leftover meat and possibly cheese for making an omelet the next day. Note that this is Mexican chorizo, a completely different product than the Portuguese or Spanish; if you can’t find it, it’s relatively easy to make (but not as good as El Popular’s). Although this recipe has several steps, they only take a few minutes each.
For the corn
3 ears corn, cut off the cob
1-2 Serrano chilies, stem trimmed
¼ cup water
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup heavy cream
Pinch kosher salt
For the beets

3/4 lb beets (about 4 medium), roasted as directed above
1 stick El Popular or other Mexican chorizo, or just under ½ lb
1 tea sherry vinegar
For assembly
5” corn tortillas
2 or 3 teaspoons lard
5 oz mild cold goat cheese, such as Montrachet
2 T finely chopped cilantro
Reserved beets (optional)
Over high heat in a 9” lightly buttered skillet, toss the corn and the chili for a minute or two until it is smoking and begins to brown. Add the water and sugar and cook over medium-high heat for about three minutes (it will begin to brown rather quickly); add the cream and a large pinch of salt; cook another minute and set aside; it will be saucy, not thick.
Peel, slice, and chop the roasted beets into ¼” dice; if you wish, remove about ¼ cup of them for garnish and set aside.
Slit the plastic casing of the chorizo along its length, and turn the chorizo into a frying pan. Cook over medium heat, chopping with the edge of a wooden spoon, until it’s a fine mince and has released its red oil; do not allow it to brown. Toss in the diced beets and the vinegar, and stir to heat and combine. Keep warm.
In a small cast iron skillet or crepe pan, melt about a teaspoon of lard. The oil should be enough so that the tortillas coat and sizzle, but not enough for them to submerge. Fry the tortillas until they are lightly brown and puff a little; drain on paper towels, then place on the rack of a 300 F oven to stay warm.
Crumble the cold goat cheese quickly with your fingers; using a fork, toss with the chopped coriander. For each taquito, spread about 2 T of the caramel corn out to the edge; put a generous T of chorizo-beet mixture in the center; garnish with a few of the reserved beet jewels if desired; and top with a sprinkling of the goat cheese.


John Jorgenson said...

I just moved to MA from Detroit and haven't been able to find El Popular chorizo. I found your blog and am very excited--will drive for chorizo! Can you tell me exactly where you are able to buy it? My email is Thanks!


Jane said...

You can buy El Popular chorizo at Piaxtla Tortilleria at 802 Atwells Ave in Providence--and reward yourself with a fresh taco from the back of the store. Atwells also is the site of many fine Italian specialty stores and restaurants--worth the trip.

Anonymous said...

Is there any el popular chorizo availble in northern california? I'm running out of excuses to fly to Chicago for chorizo and hot sauce.

Jane said...

I don't know a particular place, but it is surely available at most any Mexican grocer, if you can locate one. Good luck.