The farmer’s markets are overflowing with produce so fresh that there is still dew on it. Crispy and tender, full of flavor, and just waiting for me to create something fabulous. As I walk along, browsing the stalls, my mind starts spinning, figuring out what I can do with my bounty. Should I stir-fry, bake, roast, or leave them raw? I could toss them with pasta or rice, create a salad, or use them as part of composed meal. The possibilities are nearly endless, but my trouble is that I tend to fall back to the meals I am comfortable making. Those I know I can knock out without thinking. This is the challenge that faces every cook – how to take ingredients and create something new and wonderful with them.
Today I am focusing on two ingredients, beets and cauliflower. Maligned by many, I too used to dislike them. And then I tasted really fresh, perfectly cooked vegetables that completely changed my mind. Perhaps these two recipes will alter your perceptions as well. If you think you don’t like these two vegetables, give these recipes a try, but add in some veggies you know you like. Try a little of everything, but you’ll definitely have some that you love.
If you are like me, you were introduced to beets straight from the can, purple, mushy, and flavorless. I pushed them around my plate, trying not to get everything stained pink. And then one day, at a luncheon at a winery in Napa Valley, I was served freshly cooked beets. It was another epiphany in my life. I realized that all those years I hated eating vegetables was because they weren’t fresh. I grew up when canned goods were the latest and greatest invention. Busy moms relied on them for healthy meals and relished the convenience and speed they provided. Unfortunately, in order to give canned goods longer shelf life, they are loaded with sodium and other preservatives. I have no problem cooking with canned goods, but with the exception of beans and tomatoes, most of them just don’t have a lot of flavor or texture. If you can’t make fresh vegetables, try frozen. They are the next best thing.
When you are selecting beets at the farmer’s market or grocers look for tiny baby beets. I prefer golden or orange baby beets because they are less intensely flavored than the large red beets. If you choose red beets, be aware that the juice stains anything it touches. Wear an apron, chef’s coat, or an old shirt that you don’t mind ruining. And if you have a white porcelain sink, rinse it immediately! Roasting brings out the flavor in foods, caramelizing their natural sugars. Utilizing herbs and seasonings such as fresh lemon juice or a vinaigrette like in today’s recipe, can change the entire dish. I love the flavor of fresh herbs and they make a huge difference. When we first married, The Artist thought my marinara sauce had too many herbs in it. The sauce he grew up eating is very simply seasoned in the old-world Italian style. He now prefers mine and finds most other sauces to be under-seasoned.
Both of today’s recipes use sauces and I think it would be fun to switch the main vegetables – use the cauliflower in the beet recipe and visa versa. You can also add or substitute any other vegetables you like such as broccoli, parsnips, turnips, potatoes, etc. You will want to stay with sturdier, less delicate vegetables that will stand up to the roasting.
Facing a head of cauliflower can be intimidating. Large and unwieldy, taking the first whack at it is the hardest part. I use a large, very sharp knife and start by cutting around the core, removing most of the leaves. Then I cut individual florets away from the core, working my way out from the center. The largest florets are cut into quarters, the medium sized in half, and the smallest are left whole. If you have a really long knife, you can cut the entire head in half first, cutting vertically through the core, north to south.
How you are going to use the cauliflower will determine the size of the pieces you cut. If you are using them lightly blanched for a crudite platter, you want pieces no larger than one bite. This will discourage double dipping. If you are cooking it, try to make each piece the same side and density. This promotes even cooking. If you are going to roast the cauliflower, leave the pieces a bit larger than you normally would. They will shrink slightly in the cooking process.
The cauliflower recipe includes Sage Salt, a wonderful idea for a condiment. You lightly fry the sage leaves in hot oil, crisping them, and then crumble and combine with a coarse salt. Fried sage leaves, on their own, are a fantastic way to extend the flavors you already have in your dishes too – it is a favorite of professional chefs. Sage is particularly good for this technique because of the size of the leaves and the moisture content. You can use this flavored salt on main courses, salads, soups, or anything else you can think of. You can also change the herbs to your liking or to create variety. I have seen containers of herbed salts for sale at gourmet stores at exorbitant prices. These flavored salts make a lovely gift for the holidays or any time of the year. Find pretty jars with tight fitting lids, tie them with colorful ribbons, and add a recipe or suggestions on way to use it. Your friends and family will love it!
I hope you enjoy these recipes and that they help you expand your vegetable horizons. Who knows, maybe they’ll give you an epiphany too!
- For the Vinaigrette
- 1/4 cup sherry vinegar
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 2 tbsp finely chopped shallots
- 1/2 tsp chopped fresh thyme
- 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- For the Salad
- 2 large beets, washed and dried, outer skin left on
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 8 (1/4-inch thick) slices baguette
- 1 (4 to 5 oz) log goat cheese
- 1/2 tsp herbes de Provence
- 1/2 tsp chopped fresh thyme
- 1/2 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
- 4 cups lightly packed mixed greens, such as frisée, red leaf lettuce, baby spinach, and mizuna, washed and dried
- 1/2 lb haricots vert (slim green beans), trimmed, cooked until just tender, shocked in cold water, and drained
- Scant 1/2 cup good-quality black olives, optional
- 2 green, tart apples, cored and sliced thinly, optional
- 1/4 cup toasted walnuts, optional
- Make the Vinaigrette: In a small bowl, whisk the vinegar, salt, shallots, and thyme. Add the olive oil in a slow stream, whisking to emulsify. Season with pepper and more salt, if needed.
- Make the Salad: Heat the oven to 400°F. Rub the beets with the olive oil, put them on a baking sheet, and bake until fork-tender, 60 to 90 minutes. When cooled, peel off the skin and slice the beets into 1/4-inch rounds.
- Make the Croutons: Broil the baguette slices until light golden brown on both sides. Cool. With a hot, wet knife, cut the goat cheese into 8 slices. Put a round of cheese on each slice of baguette and arrange on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with the herbes de Provence, thyme, and pepper and set aside.
- When ready to serve, heat the oven to 400°F. Bake until the cheese softens, about 5 minutes.
- Meanwhile, arrange a few slices of beets on salad plates. Season lightly with salt and pepper. In a large bowl, toss the greens, haricots vert, and olives with enough vinaigrette to just moisten them. Divide the mixture among the salad plates. Garnish with apple slices, and sprinkle with walnuts if using. Put a warm crouton on either side of the plate and serve.
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup sage leaves, loosely packed
- 1 tbsp coarse salt, more for tossing
- 3 heads cauliflower, cut into florets
- About 1 tsp table salt
- 6 tbsp unsalted butter
- 1 lemon, zest finely grated
- Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, optional
- Line a baking sheet with paper towels and set it next to the stove.
- Heat oil in a small pan until rippling. Add sage and cook, stirring, just until crisped, about 2 minutes. Lift out sage and drain on paper towel-lined sheet. Pour the infused oil into a large bowl. When sage is cool, place it in a small bowl with the coarse salt. Using a muddler, pestle, or other rounded object, crush the salt and sage together. Use your fingers to break up any large pieces of sage, but the mixture should be rough.
- Heat oven to 375°F. Adjust the racks with one on the bottom and the second in the middle of the oven. Place roasting pan with an inch of water on lower rack. Add cauliflower to bowl with oil, add about 1 tsp table salt, and toss gently until coated. Spread out on two baking sheets. Place them side by side in the middle of the oven and bake until browned, 20 to 30 minutes.
- Melt the butter in a small pan over medium heat. When foam subsides, watch closely and stir often. When white solids are brown and butter smells toasty, turn off heat, squeeze in juice of lemon, and stir well.
- Transfer cauliflower to a bowl, drizzle lemon butter over the top, and add lemon zest. Add half the sage salt and toss. Taste and season with remaining salt as needed. Sprinkle with Parmesan if desired and serve.
- Yield: 10 to 12 servings