Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Beet Goes On

I’ve been doing some editing and research for Binda Colebrook as she prepares the 5th edition of the estimable Winter Gardening in the Maritime Northwest, (look for it next year from New Society Publishers) and she is paying me partly in produce. 

Among my takings was a big, really big Robuschka beet. Robuschkas are a rare variety, at least in the U.S.  A  bit of Googling did bring up dozens of references in German. A lot of people hate beets, and even those who like them often avoid the great big ones, fearing they will be woody and not sweet. But Robuschkas are known for consistent sweetness, and this one was bigger than a softball and firm and fine-grained all the way through. 

First we made borscht. It was wonderful. Here is my friend Gale Lawrence’s  recipe:
            Grate or chop in matchsticks:  beets and carrots
            Mince onions
            Sauté onions briefly in canola or other unflavorful oil.  Add a small amount of fennel seeds and sauté for 2 minutes.  Add grated beets and carrots and continue to sauté on low for 5-10 minutes to develop flavor.
            Add vegetable broth and simmer for 15 minutes or until beets are almost tender.  Add diced potatoes and/or chopped cabbage and cook an additional 10 minutes until soft.
            Add honey (not much if beet is very sweet), juice from 1/2 lemon and chopped beet greens. Cook about 10 minutes more.  Add salt, etc.
                Serve hot or cold with yogurt or sour cream and chopped parsley or dill.

We had it hot. Gale’s note was that this beet was so sweet that very little honey was needed to balance the flavor. It was delicious borscht, and we made a lot of it, but there was still more than half the beet remaining.

Next I cubed a bunch of it and roasted it along with onions, garlic, sweet potatoes, and mushrooms. That was OK, a bit on the sweet side for my taste despite a liberal hand with the soy sauce. And there was still a hefty chunk of beet.

A few days later I made beet risotto, a suggestion that came originally from Mike DeArmand in Seattle (thanks, Mike!).  I used at least a cup of the grated beet, along with some of the greens and a couple of cheese ends—fontina and romano. It was bright magenta and really delicious. I ate it for dinner, and for lunch the next two days. And there was still lots more of that beet. I was beginning to think it had arrived from a fairy tale, along with the endless cup of mead and the love that never dies. Or maybe it has a sort of beet Midas touch; everything it encounters in the vegetable drawer turns to Robuschka.

I was getting ready to make a dessert for a potluck, my never-fail carrot/date bars from Winter Harvest, when I remembered that at least one of the other guests avoids gluten. So I switched from wheat flour to coconut flour. Coconut flour is great for folks who are allergic to gluten and/or tree nuts, as the coconut is a different botanical family as walnuts and their ilk.  But as a baking medium, it has the problem of being very dense and very dry. Dishes made with it tend to crumble and lack that moist lusciousness we want from our pastry treats. Enter, Robuschka. I grated in a hefty chunk of beet along with the carrots and dates. It was hit, but the beet remains.

I do have a recipe for a luscious beet/hazelnut/chocolate cake (Also in Winter Harvest, see below), but I’ve finally whittled my monster down below the necessary for that one. Instead I’m going to braise it with some red wine and a red onion my across-the-street neighbor gave me when I came over to buy eggs. And I’d better get on that, because today when I went out to get the next installment of my produce pay—leaf lettuce, spinach, lettuce, pears, chrysanthemums—I also got another Robuschka.

Robuschka beet seeds are available from Turtle Tree Seed:   Lutz Winterkeeper is another good variety for large, sweet beets

Nutella Pudding Cake
Rich, dark, moist, non-dairy, and gluten-free, this treat delivers one of my favorite flavor combos—chocolate and hazelnut—with the hidden surprise of beets, which provide the texture and tint of an old-fashioned velvet cake. It is a fine use for the great big, overwintered beet varieties, and a reminder that sugar beets used to be a major crop in the Pacific Northwest. It’s modified from a recipe by Elana Amsterdam, author of The Gluten Free, Almond Flour Cookbook and the Elana’s Pantry blog, Elana’s motto is “simplify, satisfy.” In this case you could probably add, “seduce,” rich and silky as it is.

2 ½ cups chopped, peeled beets
¾ cup agave syrup
½ cup water
4 eggs
½ cup light oil (canola or grapeseed)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
½ cup cocoa powder
½ cup fine-ground hazelnuts (I use a coffee grinder)
½ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Pour the syrup in a medium saucepan, add the chopped beets, and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer until beets are soft, about 30 minutes. Purée the mixture until it’s as smooth as you can get it. Mix in the eggs, oil, and vanilla. Mix the nuts, cocoa, and salt, into a large bowl, add the beet mixture, and stir thoroughly.

Pour batter into a greased, 9-inch cake pan and bake until a knife in the center comes out clean—30-40 minutes. The sides will puff up a bit and the center will stay moist.

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