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what not to rush: roasted beets and feta

When I was growing up, I always turned my nose up if my mother served beets. Whether they were on the side of the dinner plate or studding a salad like jewels, I wouldn’t eat them. And don’t get me wrong—I tried them; we didn’t get to reject anything unless we’d tried it first. But I hated them. I think they were the very first food I hated. Certainly it’s the food aversion I remember most vividly.

But you don’t marry a Ukrainian man without being able to eat your beets. And it turns out I like them just fine, as long as they aren’t swimming in vinegar. Who’d have thought? Canned beets taste nothing like beets that you cook yourself. If you hate beets because of the vinegar thing, I understand completely. I think, unless you are super-picky, that you might like them much better if you make them yourself. I like making them a day in advance, so that I can throw them on the table with about five minutes’ work the next day. The roasting part itself can take a long time, so I can forgive my mother and yours for the canned-beet thing. 

Beets are actually very sweet and earthy. They don’t taste like anything else in the world. But a little part of me still flinches before I take the first bite, even today, because all I can remember is the vinegar from my childhood table. Scarred for life! And then I close my eyes and take the bite anyway and it’s all okay then because the flavor is intense and deep, like a candy made for adults. I like to make this dish with yellow beets if I can find them, because the green of the dill stands out even more, not to mention that yellow ones will not turn your feta pink and are kind to your cutting boards.

But for all I know you might have been hoping to have pink feta someday. Or maybe you never knew you had that hope until just now. 

Roasted Beets and Feta

1 to 1½ pounds beets, very firm and fresh (if they come with greens, you can sauté them like spinach)

¼ to ⅓ cup lemon juice

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

¼ cup dill, chopped

¼ to ⅓ cup crumbled feta cheese, very fresh

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°. Remove any attached greens and reserve for another use. Wash the beets well and dry them, and then wrap them in foil. 
  2. Bake the beets until they are soft all the way through. Test this by piercing them; you can use a knife, but I have a long metal skewer I like for this purpose. I happened to get really huge beets for this recipe, both of them somewhere between baseball-sized and softball-sized, and I baked them for 90 minutes, but if you get little ones, they’ll cook much faster. Remove each beet as it finishes, especially important if you have a mix of sizes on your tray.
  3. Let the wrapped beets sit at room temperature until they’re all out of the oven, and then, when they’re cool enough to touch, put them (still wrapped!) into the fridge for three hours to overnight. 
  4. Remove foil. Peel the beets by slicing the skin with a sharp knife and then peeling the skin with your fingers. You will probably only need to make one or two starter cuts; the rest of the skin should fall away from the beet very easily. If you’re using purple beets, do this over a sink. Cut the beets into bite-sized pieces and place into serving bowl.
  5. In a small bowl, whisk together lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Pour over the cold beets and toss gently with your hands. Add dill and feta and toss very gently. Taste and add more lemon juice or salt if desired. Serve immediately.
Variations: Use lime juice or orange juice instead of lemon juice; use parsley instead of dill; add toasted walnuts before serving; use softened goat cheese instead of feta. Soup variation: Simmer roasted and peeled bite-sized beet pieces and dill in 4 to 5 cups water or light broth for 15 minutes. Puree with immersion blender until very smooth. Stir in 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar or 2 tablespoons lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper. Taste and add more acid or salt if desired. Serve immediately, garnished with crumbled feta and dill.

what not to rush: roasted tomatoes

Tomatoes are such variable little things. You can do just about anything with them. But January tomatoes are about the most uninspiring tomatoes there are, except maybe February tomatoes. I see them en masse and it’s like a pinprick in my balloon. Pink, unpleasant handfuls; inside they’re as mealy as watermelon and tasteless besides. Choosing which ones to take and which ones to leave behind is no choice at all.

In this place, if I tried to eat local and seasonal, I would starve for a fair amount of the year. So I release anything similar to locavore guilt until May and I do what I can with what I can get. And I don’t see a point in raw winter tomatoes when a few hours in the oven takes them past edible into pretty damn good.

Once again, this is not a recipe. It’s trial-and-error all the way, because you never know what you’re going to get inside those winter tomatoes. These are plain old romas, ripened on the counter for a few days after purchase, with all the seeds and some of the cores removed, halved and tossed with olive oil, black pepper, and gray salt. You can peel them beforehand if you like, but I never do. There’s also one gigantic shallot in eight pieces, each chunk nestled in a tomato so that it can soak up some olive oil too. Only a little bit of oil is required—this looks glossier than it is because of the harsh winter light coming in through my only decent window. These particular tomatoes were heavy, but they didn’t have much in the way of seeds and such inside. I throw them on parchment just to aid cleanup.

You can go two ways with this: slow-roasted tomatoes, which put them in the oven for eight to twelve hours at very low heat (200° or so), which results in a consistency closer to a sun-dried tomato. They’re incredibly sweet and will last for a long time if you store them in a jar of olive oil in your fridge. You can use them to intensify tomato sauces, strew slices of them over pizza, or chop them up to top a side of broccoli or green beans, just to start. But most often, I just put them in for half an hour at 350° and then drop the temperature to 300° for 1.5 to 2.5 hours more. After the first 1.5 hours, you have to be a little vigilant and keep your eye on them so that they don’t get too dry—remember how I said you never know what you’re going to get? But until that time, you can walk away and do something you’ve been putting off. Call someone you meant to call before the holidays. Send some snail mail. Figure out what you’re going to put in that bare spot on the wall.

So, what are you going to do with these when they’re done? Anything you feel like. They are amazing just by themselves if you like tomatoes. Plunk one on top of a dull chicken breast or fish filet, serve a few as a side dish with kale and garlic. Steep them with the shallot bits in some broth with a few stems of thyme and then puree it with a blender (if you hate bits of tomato skin in your soup, peel them before cooking for this preparation, but it doesn’t bother me). Personally, I don’t think they add much to my spaghetti sauces, but those are already flavor-intense; your mileage may vary. And don’t feel like you have to use them while they’re hot. If you put them in the fridge, they’ll last for a few days. Two of them on a rice cake with hummus and baby arugula is a great lunch. They’ll even make cold cuts in a wrap into something to crave. All this for about five minutes of prep work. You’ll still be sad when tomato season ends next fall, but everything will be all right. We’ll just call it Tomato Season II. Sequels are never as good as the original, but the best ones have their own charms.

what not to rush: slow-cooked beans

I did not grow up eating beans. This is a shame, because now I eat them all the time. I do get cans of them from time to time, but for the most part, I keep two-cup containers in the freezer that can be thawed overnight in the fridge or thrown into a pot of simmering soup. They have eighteen billion times less salt1 than beans in a can. And they taste better, and you can control their place on the firm-to-mushy continuum, and they are a great foundation to fast, cheap meals. What’s not to love? Oh, yeah. They take hours. Think of it as time when you can walk away from the kitchen and pay attention to someone else.

I have a slow cooker, and if you have one, beans are no problem at all. But even if you want to do them on the stovetop, they aren’t hard. You don’t even really need to soak them if you don’t want to; I almost never do. I’ve used this method on black beans (the favorites in our house), chickpeas, white beans, pinto beans, and borlotti beans, but kidney beans should only be cooked in the traditional way because of a toxin they carry. To be honest, we use kidney beans so rarely that if I need them, I get a can of Yves or Eden beans. 

After the beans are done, you can go nuts with them. My current favorite is to sauté them with garlic, onion, cumin, chili powder, chipotle, and salsa and put them in tortillas, tacos, or on cornmeal or rice. However, slow-cooked black beans make amazing soup, too. 

Slow-Cooked Beans (any quantity; 1 cup dry beans yields 3 cups cooked beans)

  1. Pick through a quantity of beans to sort them. I spread them out on a baking sheet for this part. I have found stones in my beans, but it’s rare. Mostly, you want to pick out ones that aren’t the best color or that are damaged in some way. When I picked through my black beans, I took out ones that were closer to gray and any ones that I caught that were cracked or broken, and a few that were so tiny or wrinkly they gave me a little shudder.
  2. Pour the beans into a colander and run your fingers through them to give yourself an Amélie moment. This is “what not to rush,” remember? Then rinse the beans completely in fresh cold water. I like to see black beans in a bowl full of water, because their tiny white spots become shockingly bright somehow. If you let them sit there for a few minutes, some beans will float to the surface; get rid of those, too.
  3. SLOW COOKER: Pour the rinsed beans into the slow cooker and cover them with a large quantity of fresh water. This weekend, I used 2½ cups of dry black beans and about 2 quarts of water, which fills my slow cooker up halfway. Turn the heat to high and replace the lid.
  4. STOVETOP: Pour the rinsed beans into a large pot and cover them with water by at least two inches. Bring to a boil and cook for five minutes, then turn off the heat and let them sit for an hour. Then pour off that water, replace it with fresh water, and simmer away.
  5. I don’t season most varieties except for a little salt, because I never know what they’re going to be put into. For my black beans, though, I season after about 90 minutes of simmering: cumin, a crushed garlic clove or two, salt, and a bay leaf or two.
  6. Cooking time will vary; it depends a lot on how long your beans have been hanging around the grocery shelf (or your own shelf). Figure at least three hours and give yourself more than four; chickpeas always take less for me. I test beans by squashing them on a plate with a fork before I’ll taste one, because I’m namby-pamby that way. 
  7. Remove the beans you’re using right away and store the rest in freezer containers. I measure out two-cup portions just because that’s close to what’s in a can for recipe purposes. If you’re freezing beans, let them come to room temperature in the cooking water first. I think it helps keep the skins intact, and a little superstition never hurt anyone.

1 My math may have a tricky decimal in it somewhere.

Bonus: This recipe for black bean tostadas just came in my email. Synchronicity, yeah?

what not to rush: tarka dhal

Last month I wrote about getting myself psyched for the oncoming storm(s) by delving into soul-warming long-cooked food. The steam on the windows is just one emotional cue for me. Add in minimally processed ingredients, long periods of time in between stirring to grab a book or a craft project or a sheet of stationery and an envelope, home fragrancing you don’t have to plug into the wall, and the luxury of avoiding that five-pm-what-now-ohgod-must-feed-everyone neurosis and what you get? A real reason to make time for this, whether you can do it during the day or whether you squeeze it in on a weekend. Last week Heather and Jo requested this dhal recipe, but I can’t take credit for it. It’s adapted from a recipe I got from another Heather I know, this one here in Ottawa. LocalHeather does amazing things with simple, fresh ingredients, and I’ve stolen plenty of recipes from her. The sweetness of the cooked onion and the fresh bite of cilantro make this dish craveworthy, even though it’s not the most visually appealing thing you’ll ever eat. Myron loves it as an excuse to eat lots of naan and rice, but most of the time I eat the lentils by themselves.

Things to know: There are as many dhal recipes out there as there are websites, so if you like this one, I suggest you search for others to explore other ways of making it. Often restaurant tarka dhal is pureed, but I like the slubby natural texture in this recipe. You might want to go easy on the spices until you’ve had a bowl, just so that you can determine what’s missing for you. I almost always double the recipe because it reheats like a dream. Finally, I’ve made this with shredded spinach or tomato added along with the onions. I like both of those variations, but try it this way first.

Tarka Dhal (serves four to six)

[note: To wash red lentils, place them in a large bowl, cover them with water, swish your hands through the lentils, let them settle at the bottom of the bowl, and pour off the cloudy water. Repeat until the water comes away clear.]

  • 9 oz/250 g red lentils, well washed and drained (this is just under a cup and a half, if you don’t have a scale)
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground roasted cumin
  • ½ to 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • ½ to 1 teaspoon ground celery seed
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger 
  • pepper, cayenne, or curry powder to taste (optional)
  • 1 medium onion
  • peanut, canola, or other neutral oil (or ghee, if you have it)
  • 1-2 teaspoons whole coriander seeds
  • 1-2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds
  • 3 cloves garlic (a great time to use really good garlic, if you can get some), chopped with ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • fresh cilantro to taste
  • basmati rice or naan (optional)

1. Place the washed lentils, cumin, turmeric, and ginger in a heavy pot. Add pepper, cayenne, or curry powder, if using. (Remember that cayenne will intensify the longer you cook it.) Cover with five cups of water. Stir well. 

2. Bring to a boil, lower heat to medium, and cook 20-25 minutes. The lentils will begin to disintegrate in about ten minutes. Skim off any foam that rises. Cover, reduce the heat as low as you can, and continue to cook 30 minutes up to three hours. Stir often enough to keep the dhal from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Add more water as needed. 

3. Meanwhile, slice the onion into thin half-moons. In a skillet, toss the onion with just enough oil to coat. (I sprinkled a bit of my homemade curry powder on the slices.) Cook them gently until they brown, but don’t let them get too dark—just pleasantly soft and sweet.

4. When the lentils are done to your satisfaction, stir in the onion and kosher salt to taste. Wipe out the skillet for the next step.

5. To make the tarka (topping): In a cleaned skillet, add 1 to 2 tablespoons oil or ghee and heat on medium. Add cumin and coriander seeds and cook until they sizzle—think of it as “steeping” to get the flavor from the seeds into the oil. Add the chopped garlic, cook for around one minute more. The garlic should stay white or light gold; don’t let it get brown! You just want the flavor of it to get into your oil. Pour the tarka on top of the finished lentils, put the lid back on the pot, and let the flavors meld for a few minutes. Stir everything all together, taste for salt, and serve with basmati rice or naan, garnished with cilantro if you like.