Thursday, September 25, 2008

Summer Beet Salad

I have to admit that I had never been a big fan of beets – I thought of them as red potatoes, and I don’t like potatoes. However, this summer I prepared them at home for the first time and was surprised at how tasty they were, especially complemented with goat cheese, oranges and nuts. Given my sweet tooth, it’s surprising that beets aren’t a favorite since they contain more sugar than any other vegetable including carrot and sweet corn. Beets have 8-10% sugar while the closely related sugar beet can contain 15-20% sugar.

Beets (also known as garden beets or blood turnips) have been part of the human diet for millennia. Five thousand year old beet remains have been found at the ancient city of Thebes in Egypt and at a Neolithic site in the Netherlands. Domesticated beets are referenced in Roman and Jewish literary sources as far back as the 1st century BC. The garden beet is Beta vulgaris subspecies vulgaris, while chard (often called Swiss chard) is the closely related Beta vulgaris subspecies cicla, grown primarily for its leaves. They have both evolved from the sea beet which is Beta vulgaris subspecies maritima.

The Romans used beets as a remedy for fevers and constipation. They were also considered an aphrodisiac – substantiated due to their high boron content, which plays a role in the production of human sex hormones. More recently, beet juice has been shown to reduce blood pressure. Its properties as a panacea, however, have been overstated. South Africa’s Health Minister, now jokingly referred to as Dr. Beetroot, preposterously suggested beets and other vegetables as alternatives to antiretroviral drugs in the treatment of HIV/AIDS patients. Consuming beets can have unusual side effects such as causing red urine (known as beeturia) or red stool. Don’t worry – neither of these conditions is harmful.

Beets can be eaten steamed, roasted, pickled, canned or served raw. They can also be distilled into wine or spirits. Beet pulp is sometimes fed to horses, and the beet pigments are widely used as a food colorant.

Serves 4

3 medium beets (about 1 1/2 lbs)
6 ounces lettuce, washed and dried
1 blood orange, peeled, slices cut in half
4 ounces goat or feta cheese
1/3 cup toasted walnuts or hazelnuts, coarsely chopped (optional)
2 tablespoons chives, finely chopped
4 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for roasting
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons orange juice
salt and fresh-ground black pepper, to taste

1. Wash and peel beets. Cut into 1/2-inch cubes. Note: beet juice is dark red and stains clothes and hands easily. In a glass or metal baking dish, toss beets with olive oil, salt and pepper.
2. Cover with foil and bake at 350F for 30-45 minutes, or until the beets are tender. Cool to room temperature. The beets can be roasted a day in advance. [second photo above]
3. On salad plates, mound the lettuce. Top with roasted beets, orange pieces, and cheese. Sprinkle with nuts and chives.
4. In a tight-lidded screw-top jar, mix olive oil, balsamic vinegar, orange juice, salt and pepper. Shake well and pour over salads.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Pizza Melanzane

As most people know, pizza originated in Italy but it has reached global popularity via the United States where it is one of the most common foods. Pizza was invented in Naples and the local style, Neapolitan, is still among the most well-known. It is usually made with San Marzano tomatoes, basil and buffalo mozzarella on a very thin wheat crust that is flash baked for 90 seconds. Other regions of Italy use additional toppings including sausage, ham, mushrooms, artichokes, olives, and other cheeses.

Americans have invented a bewildering number of local, ethnic and personalized variations that would perplex many Italians. Most famous among these are New York-style that has a thin, soft crust, and Chicago deep-dish that has a thick (sometimes stuffed) crust. Others include Greek pizza (containing feta, Kalamata olives and olive oil), Taco pizza (using Taco sauce, shredded beef, lettuce, tomatoes, avocadoes, cheddar cheese) and Hawaiian (topped with ham/bacon, pineapple and mozzarella). California-style pizza, invented at the Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, incorporates non-traditional ingredients. One of their most popular versions is a Thai chicken pizza with peanut sauce.

I’ve seen a melanzane pizza on many restaurant menus, and its use of the Italian word for eggplant signals authenticity. However, it may be another American invention rather than a true Italian variation. Regardless, it was delicious and very easy.

Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as an appetizer

2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
4 to 6 ounces eggplant, diced (about 1 to 1 1/2 cups)
1 pizza crust (prepared (e.g. Boboli or Trader Joe’s), store-bought pizza dough, or homemade)
8 ounces tomato pizza sauce (store-bought - I like the Scalfani brand) or homemade
4 ounces mozzarella, shredded
1/2 cup basil leaves, thinly sliced or torn
1 large tomato
oregano (optional)

1. In a skillet over medium heat, sauté garlic in olive oil for 1 minute or until fragrant. Add eggplant and sauté for 5-7 minutes. Initially the eggplant will absorb all of the oil, and as it cooks it will release some moisture. Set aside and cool to room temperature.
2. Preheat oven.
3. Prepare pizza crust according to directions (if appropriate). Spread pizza sauce leaving a 1-inch crust. Sprinkle with mozzarella.
4. Top with basil, cooked eggplant and tomato slices. Sprinkle with oregano.
5. Bake according to directions, usually about 10-12 minutes at 400F (less if the crust is very thin).

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Ina's Simple Chocolate Cake

In general, I’m not enamored of celebrity chefs. However, there are a few people who I respect and whose food inspires me. One of those people is Ina Garten – some of you may know her as the Barefoot Contessa. I was first drawn to Ina’s desserts – they are delicious and simple, rich but not overpowering. I’ve come to find that she has many relatively easy dishes that make use of fresh ingredients and simple preparation. Unlike some well-known chefs, Ina does not fuss nor call for obsure ingredients (when she does she, let’s you know they’re optional). She also doesn’t “dumb down” the art of cooking. Ina has a great and inspiring story – she quit her job as a budget analyst in the White House and bought a small gourmet food store, the Barefoot Contessa, in the Hamptons. Incidentally, her husband Jeffrey was Dean of the Yale School of Management and still teaches there. For more about Ina check out her website.

Today’s recipe is a favorite from one of Ina’s books. It’s a quick, one-bowl, versatile chocolate cake that has only six ingredients (five of which you need one of, so it’s easy to remember). I generally don’t bother with the ganache frosting she recommends, which makes it even easier. A bit of powdered sugar or cocoa is a suitable (and more healthy) way to complete this dessert. Since it is no-frills, it’s best served with vanilla ice cream (or whipped cream) and fruit. Another reason I like this recipe is that it can be easily made with ingredients that one has on hand (just make sure you have a couple of tins of the Hershey’s syrup in your pantry). It’s easy to whip up when you have last-minute or unexpected company.

Serves 8

1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated white sugar
4 eggs, at room temperature
1 16-ounce can of Hershey’s chocolate syrup
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup unbleached all purpose flour
cocoa or powdered sugar, for dusting (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 325 F and butter an 8-inch round cake tin. Line with parchment or wax paper.
2. In a large bowl, beat together butter and sugar until fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat after each addition.
3. Add the chocolate syrup and vanilla and beat again.
4. Add the flour and mix until just combined. Don’t overmix.
5. Bake for 60 minutes or until just set in the middle. Don’t overbake, but make sure the center is firm to a touch with your fingers. Shake the cake gently and if the center jiggles keep baking it until it is firm.
6. Let cool to room temperature. Dust with cocoa, powdered sugar, or both.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Bekah's Turkey Meatballs

Meatballs are traditionally found in cuisines throughout Europe, Middle East, and South and East Asia. Largely through the European culinary heritage, they are also staples in North and some parts of South America. In a number of cultures, the term for meatballs is derived from the Persian word kufta which means "to beat" or "to grind". Examples include the term kofta (India/Pakistan), keftes (Greece) and qofte (Albania). The Spanish word is albóndigas, derived from the Arabic word al-bunduq which means hazelnut (referring to their shape). Albóndigas were introduced to Spain during the period of Muslim rule. Similar words are used in Portuguese and Tagalog.

Meatballs are typically made with beef or pork though many other kinds of meat are used including veal, reindeer, lamb, chicken and turkey. They are usually a combination of ground meat, grain (breadcrumbs, rice, bulgur), vegetables or onions, eggs and spices/seasonings. Some varieties contain cheese. They can be fried, baked, boiled or steamed and served on their own, or in a sandwich, gravy, soup or pizza.

This recipe comes from my friend Bekah. She made these delicious meatballs for dinner when we visited her in Montreal this summer. I tried them last week when I had visitors from Rome and Chicago. They were a hit. Don’t skip the yogurt sauce – it’s a key element of the meal.

Makes 15-20 meatballs

Yogurt Sauce
1 cup plain yogurt (whole or low-fat)
1/2 lemon, juiced
1 clove of garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
cayenne powder, to taste

1 cup bread crumbs
1 medium onion, finely diced
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 lb ground turkey
1-2 tablespoons olive oil

large lettuce leaves, to serve

1. To make the yogurt sauce, in a small bowl mix all the ingredients and set aside.
2. To make the meatballs, in a large bowl, mix the first six ingredients with a spoon. Add the egg and mix well. Then add the turkey and use your hands to incorporate with the dry ingredients.
3. Roll into 1-inch meatballs. [see photo above]
4. Place olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Cook meatballs, turning occasionally, until well-browned on all sides. To make sure the meatballs are tender and fully cooked, add 1/4 cup water to the skillet and cover to steam the meatballs for about 5 to 7 minutes. To test for doneness, cut the largest meatball in half and make sure there is no pink meat in the center. If there is, continue to cook.
5. Serve meatballs rolled inside lettuce leaves and generously drizzled with yogurt sauce. Serve with cous cous, flatbread and a salad.

Double or triple the recipe - if you make a big batch freeze most of the meatballs raw for a future meal, and freeze a few cooked so they can be used on a whim to add heft to a marina sauce or for a midnight meatball sandwich. Frozen raw meatballs should be defrosted overnight in the refrigerator and cooked well.