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.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Grass-fed Beef: Sustainable and Satisfying

When I moved back to Rhode Island from Philly in 2006, one of the things I was worried about was: will I be able to get grass-fed beef?? Counter-intuitively, despite the fact that I lived smack in the middle of Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, about as urban as you can get, I could literally walk outside my door and have my pick of meat and poultry purveyors—at least, on Tuesday and Saturday, when the farmers came to the Square and set up on the sidewalk. Although I was moving to a farming area when I returned to Rhode Island, I just wasn’t sure that Little Rhody, always a bit behind the times in that endearingly provincial way, would be up to speed.

Not to worry. Turns out that Don and Heather Minto of Watson Farm in Jamestown have been raising grass-fed animals since 1980. The source of that commitment is a fervent belief, grounded in knowledge and experience rather than ideology, that grass-fed is just plain better, in every way: better for the land, better for the farmer, better for the animals, and better for the customer. I can certainly attest to the latter. I find grass-fed beef to have a cleaner taste and richer flavor than conventional beef, and to have superior texture and cooking properties, whether I am making rib eyes or hamburgers. In particular, it yields far less water than meat that has been frozen for long periods in order to make its way from industrial production to your supermarket.

While grass-fed beef is generally leaner than industrially raised beef, it is not, as I have heard some complain, either gamey-tasting or tough. One key is in the cooking: grass-fed beef, in my experience, should be cooked at slightly lower heats, for shorter times, than conventional beef. But the taste of grass-fed beef may depend greatly on the way it is raised. Don Minto’s beef is completely grass-fed and grass-finished on small lots. Through a system of adjustable fences, he moves his cattle to a fresh paddock every day, so that they are always eating new, nutrient-rich grass, and the pastures they’ve eaten on can recover for a future, high-quality feeding. Some farmers keep their cattle on a single large lot, where they eat grass of ever-diminishing quality, and cattle may be put out on grass only prior to slaughter or other portion of their time. Don’s animals are never in a barn; they live in the fields, and they are healthier and happier for it.

Another element in achieving optimal, and consistent, taste and texture is the breeds themselves. Don learned this after doing everything possible to improve the grass quality, and still being unsatisfied with the meat. Realizing that the cattle themselves were the weak link, he has steadily converted his herd over to Red Devon cattle, a heritage breed that is one of the oldest breeds of beef cattle, and considered to be one of the best for grass. Since their arrival on American land, most likely with the earliest settlers, breeders have been improving their genetic characteristics as hearty, economical, ideal grass feeders, as have farmers in other parts of the world where grass feeding makes sense. The practice of increasingly selecting and breeding for the right genetic characteristics to do well on local grass and yield the qualities consumers want from their beef is continued by today's farmer's, including Minto.

That is, Minto is matching his animals to the land. He is convinced that this approach is the future of agriculture, for several compelling reasons. First, it is sustainable, using far less energy, and far less labor, while simultaneously improving the land through sound management practices. It eliminates the risk of diseases such as mad-cow. It yields healthier meat: high in omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid, lower in calories, total fat, and saturated fat. And of course, it tastes better, like the beef of your childhood (because it is the beef of your childhood). There’s demand for it.

The combination of attractive economics to farmers and attractive benefits to consumers is producing what Don calls, no pun intended, a grass-roots movement away from industrial toward sustainable local animal farming. Don is instrumental in this, through speaking and selling his special stock both here in Rhode Island and around the country. Sale of the meat itself remains local. The Mintos sell their beef at the Coastal Grower's Market in Saunderstown, and off-season through direct order, under the label Conanicut Island Grass-Fed, allowing them to complete that link from the land to the consumer.

Naturally, the estimated 6,000 head of beef cattle in Rhode Island will never be converted to all grass-fed. And the lack of a slaughterhouse in the state, requiring long drives to Pennsylvania or Vermont for slaughter and butchering (soon to be cut down significantly when a dormant Massachusetts slaughterhouse re-opens), may be seen as a barrier by some farmers to convert to grass-fed production for local sale. Nevertheless, not only Red Devons but also Scottish Highlands and other happy heritage grassfeeders have found homes on Rhode Island fields. There is an expanding and increasingly steady supply of sustainably raised, fine-tasting grass-fed beef, in cuts ranging from steaks and roasts to brisket and burger, and I, for one, am happy.

Clock Chile-Relleno Burger, Rhode Island Style

I am a true carnivore, and while I adore a good steak, preferably a Porterhouse, nothing is so satisfying to me as a good burger. This Mexican-influenced burger was the creation of a former boss of mine, Gary Barrett, who moonlighted at a restaurant called The Clock in Monterey, CA, while working in publishing during the week; I have localized it by using Portuguese Sweet Bread for the roll and a small amount of chorizo in the stuffing. Gary passed away this year, so this is in his honor, as it has been every time I have made this burger since leaving California 22 years ago.

For each hamburger

7 oz. ground beef (not sirloin)
3/4-1 oz good-quality Monterey Jack cheese, cut into small rectangular slices or coarsely grated
2 T cooked ground Portuguese chorizo, well-drained (optional)
1 small roasted and peeled poblano pepper
1 Portuguese sweet bread roll

Mayonnaise seasoned with a little chopped chipotle in adobo (optional)

Through the top, stuff peppers with the cheese and the chorizo, pushing it in with a small spoon. Set aside. Form the beef loosely into a patty about 1” thick; salt and pepper it, and let it stand, loosely covered with wax paper, to room temperature, or at least ½ hour after salting. Grill burger over medium-high heat until medium-rare; depending on your fire and the meat, this should take only 5-8 minutes.

While the burger is cooking, butter and lightly grill the roll. Place the burger on the roll and lay the stuffed pepper on top of the meat. Serve with chipotle mayonnaise if you like.

To roast and peel peppers: Put the peppers on a rack under a broiler, and broil, turning occasionally, until the skin is charred and puckered but not burned. Remove to a plastic bag and steam for a few minutes; rinse under cold water, rubbing off the skin. Gently pull the stem out, with most of the seeds, and rinse the inside with water to remove any remaining seeds. Drain on paper towels.

(Photo of Don Minto with his Red Devons courtesy of URI College of the Environment and Life Sciences)

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Gravensteins, et al: Fall Apple Season

While the first apples always show up in August, after Labor Day the apples in all their variety begin to dominate the farm stands, making a show somewhere between the tomatoes and the pumpkins. I’ve previously admitted my preference for old apple varieties, and tend to snub more modern varieties. This is both a considered choice and completely easy to do when my local Fruit Lady, as I call her, has old-fashioned favorites like Jonathans, Macs, Pippins, and the wonderful Spencer on hand. And, to my surprise, Gravensteins, that prize pie apple: apparently, some years she misses their peak picking time, which is difficult to judge (as it is for all apples). Thankfully, this year she caught them in time, and they were out on the stand for a week or so. All of her apples were packed in 3-lb bags for a dollar. Hard to resist, so I buy them all.
I have been thinking about what makes the Gravenstein so special for pies, and I think it is the Goldilocks phenomenon. Everything about its taste and texture is just right. It is not too hard, not too soft, but nicely crisp and medium grained. It has a true apple taste, but it’s neither too sweet nor too tart nor sour. It cooks up appropriately soft but never mushy, and sugar brings out its round apple flavor. It’s nice to eat, but it truly finds its calling in pie. Sitting alongside the last-gasp-of-summer raspberries, the most intensely flavorful yet, a Gravenstein apple raspberry pie is a must-make.
Apple picking is a pleasant thing to do on a fall weekend; if you have children, it also provides a concrete lesson in where our food comes from, and the experience of the genuine spouting juiciness and crisp, non-puckery taste of a fresh apple that is ready to be picked. There are orchards all over New England within short drives of every Eastern city; call or go online to see what varieties are grown and ready to pick—and, of course, which ones offer cider and doughnuts as well. In Rhode Island, there are lots of choices nearby: Your local supermarket, if its customers are picky, may hold some surprises, too. At mine, several truly old varieties are on offer, including the yellow Hudson Golden Gem (a crisp russet originally discovered growing wild in Oregon), the streaked Reine de Reinette (“King of Pippins,” an 18th century small but complex apple that originated in Holland), the Cox Orange Pippin (a venerated English dessert apple), and the rough, green, 300-year-young Ashmead’s Kernel. Such apples don’t have the airbrushed American Amazonian mannequin looks of modern hybrids, but a more modest, diminutive country-girl appeal. And they taste as wonderful as their names.
Macs are a favorite for applesauce—and contrary to popular opinion, they make a great, if somewhat soft, apple pie as well; just watch the sugar (true for any pie, but especially here). I love applesauce as a side dish and “dipping sauce” for pork chops, alone for a simple dessert, and stirred into plain Greek yogurt or oatmeal. Applesauce can also be substituted for as much as half the fat in baked goods such as homey cakes and muffins, usually as a substitute for the butter or oil, but also for eggs. If you are interested in cutting fat, this is worth experimenting with, starting off slowly (e.g., substituting applesauce for ¼ or 1/3 the fat) to see what sort changes in taste and texture it produces. Sometimes, the difference is minimal or undetectable.
Below is a recipe for applesauce, and an applesauce cake made with it. Your applesauce can also be further cooked down, with brown sugar and spices, to make apple butter.
You will yield about a quart of applesauce for every three pounds of apples. The type of apple you use affects not only taste but also texture and color. I prefer Macintosh. Good applesauce made from fresh apples should be naturally sweet, have a little color, and have a creamy, smooth-grained, almost pudding-y texture. Macs deliver on all counts. You can also combine apples with other fruits, such as raspberries (very nice), cranberries, or pears; adjust sugar accordingly.
3 lbs apples, preferably Macs
½ cup water
2-3 T light brown sugar (optional)
¼ tea cinnamon (optional)
Cut the apples in half if small, in quarters if large. Place in a large pan with ½ cup water; cover, and bring to a boil. Boil until soft, about 10 minutes, checking (and listening) to be sure the water doesn’t boil away, which would scorch your fruit. This is unlikely, as juicy apples throw water as they cook—but it has happened to me when I wasn’t paying attention.
Place a food mill over a medium size bowl and spoon in the cooked mush; you can do this amount in about two batches. Puree, pressing down and reversing the crank frequently; scrape the bottom with a spoon frequently as well.
Taste the sauce; it will usually be sweet enough that added sugar is not necessary. I like a little though, and also a little cinnamon, added while the sauce is still warm. Let cool before refrigerating or freezing.
Holiday Applesauce Cake
An applesauce cake is essentially a very moist spice cake. This one of mine, with cranberries, chocolate, nuts, and a shiny glaze, is a good keeping cake to have on hand for crowds at the holidays, and can be baked in small pans for giving away. To make a large cake, use a tube pan. I sometimes frost this with a thin layer of caramel icing, but I think I like it best with a chocolate glaze. Since buying Carol Walter’s book Great Cakes in the early 1990s, I have used her version, but without the rum and with a full teaspoon of vanilla; the recipe is now online at As always, use the freshest, highest-quality spices available for your baking, and grind your own nutmeg if possible.
½ cup boiling water
1 tea baking soda
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 ¾ cups sugar
1 large brown egg
1 ½ cups applesauce, preferably homemade with as little sugar as possible
2 ¼ cups a-p flour
½ tea salt
2 tea baking powder
½ tea cinnamon
¼ tea cloves
¼ tea allspice
½ tea cardamom
1/8 tea nutmeg
2/3 cup fresh cranberries (frozen are all right)
1/3 cup walnuts or pecans, broken by hand into pieces
¼ cup (about 1 ½ oz) chopped semisweet chocolate
Optional: confectioner’s sugar for dusting, or chocolate glaze, or caramel or other icing of your choice

Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter and flour a tube pan. Combine the boiling water and baking soda and set aside to cool. Combine the flour with the salt and spices and set aside.
In a large bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar on high. Reduce speed to medium; add the egg and blend. Reduce to low and add the applesauce; the mixture will look curdled—OK. Scrape down with a rubber spatula as you go.
On low speed, gradually add the flour/spice mixture alternately with the soda water, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Fold in the cranberries, nuts, and chocolate.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan; holding the pan firmly on the counter, rotate it back and forth for a minute to even the batter. Bake for about 1 hour, or until it tests dry in the center with a fine wooden skewer. Do not undercook. Cool on a rack for 10 minutes; remove the cake on the center piece and cool until just warm. Turn it out on the rack, and turn it face up onto the rack; if you are glazing, place it on a cardboard round if you have one. Dust with confectioner’s sugar, or glaze; let the glaze set for about 10 minutes or until cool and dry, then transfer the cake to a plate or cake stand with a large spatula.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Tomato Time

The growing season this year has been similar to last: a rainy early spring, followed by a dry, sunny, endless summer (it’s in the 80s today) that has spilled over into fall. The farm stands are absolutely bursting with a colorful display of produce that has a schizophrenic, what-season-is-this-anyway quality: is it summer? fall? The corn and tomatoes sit next to the pumpkins and acorn squash. The difference, which tells us where we are headed, is the price.
Overflowing baskets and boxes of tomatoes, ranging from a half-peck to a bushel, are a fabulous bargain right now. I bought this beautiful box of mixed heirlooms—German Stripes, Cherokee Purples, Green Zebras, and others--for $5.00. How is that possible? For the farmer, it’s too many tomatoes, too little time (to sell them before they are compost). The $5.00 tomatoes, though still nice, need to be used now. Fortunately, I am ready and willing. I take out a few of the best for slicing and serving with a thick transparent dressing. The rest I do with what I do every year at this time: I make soup base for the freezer. And, this year, since it’s so impossibly balmy and even humid, I make one last batch of gazpacho andaluz, that positively inspired cool purée of summer.
The nature of these soups, like the nature of summer, is free-form and casual. It is a sense of proportion, rather than fixed quantities, that gives them their characteristic, and reliable, taste. Year after year, they always taste the same, although I doubt I ever make the same amount twice, and never measure a thing. I even leave things out. So that is my way of saying, don’t worry; use what you have, and it will turn out beautifully. I’ve tried, though, to provide general guidelines. Note that the type of tomatoes you use will determine the color of the final product; my heirlooms, with their green tinges, produced a browner soup than all red tomatoes would.
Naturally, you can preserve your tomatoes whole for a later day. As always, I prefer freezing to processing. Blanch them in boiling water for a minute or so until the skins begin to split or separate; peel them, and pack them into quart jars or containers, pressing them down gently to remove as much air space as possible while retaining their shape. Cover and seal, and place in the freezer. I have also frozen tomatoes whole in Ziploc® bags or large containers with no treatment whatsoever (freeze separately on a sheet pan first); if you have the room and are in a rush, this is fine for relatively short periods. You can then skin them, or use them in dishes that will be strained, when the time comes. One benefit of freezing this way is that the skins begin to pop on their own while frozen, so you can usually pull them off under running water, without blanching.

Gazpacho Andaluz

I fill an 8-cup food processor bowl about ¾ full with tomatoes, then to the top line with other ingredients. It is more or less in the following quantities.

4 or 5 cups tomatoes, cut into large pieces
1 large red or green pepper (I prefer red), seeded and cut into chunks
1-1 ½ large peeled cucumber, seeded and cut into 1” slices
2 large cloves garlic, peeled
2 or 3 slices fresh, quality French or similar bread, torn into large pieces
4-5 T extra virgin olive oil
3-4 T wine vinegar (red, white, or balsamic)
¼ cup warm water

Blend everything in the food processor until completely pureed. Start with the lower amount of oil and vinegar; if you are using balsamic, use a light one and use the smaller amount. I often use white balsamic. Also, avoid the temptation to use more garlic; in this case, less is more. Taste and correct for seasoning, adding salt and more oil and/or vinegar as you like. Put a sieve over a large bowl and pour in the contents of the food processor. Strain, pressing down with a wooden spoon and scraping the sieve bottom frequently. The soup should have nice body, but be completely smooth. Cover and refrigerate, and serve cold. This soup is rarely served garnished, but you can chop a little additional cucumber and pepper for the top if you want. It will keep for several days, but the emulsion will begin to break down and begin to liquefy a bit. Whisk it well before serving.

Spiced Tomato Soup

Again, I don’t really measure. I am after the “idea” of the soup shown in this old recipe, handwritten in the back of a 1919 preserving book that I have in my collection (Janet McKenzie Hill’s Canning, Preserving, and Jelly Making, published in Boston), and the recipe for Homemade Tomato Soup in Marcia Adams’s phenomenal cookbook, Cooking from Quilt Country. I have made both following the recipes exactly, and they are quite similar. I take many shortcuts from both of these, and generally make perhaps half the amount called for in both, and don't fuss over the vegetable amounts. I never bother to core the tomatoes as it’s all to be strained anyway, and sometimes use celery seed or leave out the peppers if I don’t have celery and peppers on hand and don’t feel like going out for them. It seems to make little difference. And I do not process, but freeze. Over time, I have gravitated to a version closer to this handwritten one; the Adams recipe calls for flour, and I don’t use it. I add brown sugar to taste, starting off with half a cup and going on from there, and enough butter (at least a stick) to hold it together.

When serving, I add less milk than called for, keeping the soup red and concentrated in tomato flavor; I usually float a pat of butter and/or a little cream on top or, for company, a tiny corn or cheese fritter with a sprinkling of chopped chive (the photo shows the very last of last year’s batch, which I had for my lunch the day I made this year’s). The most important thing to do is heat the soup very slowly after it is thawed. It may look broken down and watery, but will come gradually back together as you heat it if you do not rush it. This is a very nice thing to have on hand for the winter.