Swiss Chard (now with Sweet Potato! and of course bacon…)

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There’s a lot of repetition in my recipes and posts, if you haven’t noticed already.  Greens are greens, and they all go nicely with bacon.  That’s not my fault.

Swiss chard is no exception.  Of all the bitter greens you’ll find at the market, swiss chard is the mildest and the prettiest.  Rainbow chard is the most common variety, simply because it’s so pretty.  Red, white and yellow stalks wink at you as they snake up the center of the phenomenonally large, deep green leaves.  Look for fresh looking leaves with slightly firm stalks – ignore a few rips, tears, or bug holes.  Chard leaves aren’t as hearty as something tougher like kale, so they do rip easily.  The stalks do bend a little, but they shouldn’t be bending on their own or wilting.  The leaves can range from almost purple in the red varieties to kelly green in the yellow or white, so look for those signature brightly colored veins, rhubarb-like stalks, and wide, soft leaves.

Wash well – I recommend at least 2 rinses – scrubbing the stalk with your thumb under the faucet.  They trap a lot of dirt.  

Chard is slightly sweet as greens go and a little nutty.  (I feel like I should make some sort of vaudevillian pun here.  I’ll resist the urge.)  Because it’s a little milder, it can sneak its way in to almost any recipe, though it really shines with other fall vegetables – winter squashes and pumpkins, walnuts, root vegetables.  I had planned to use this chard in a sneaky green way by slicing it up very fine, mixing with ricotta, stuffing it into giant pasta shells, covering with sauce and cheese, and baking.  But we had our very first fall day in Los Angeles last week – cold and rainy and absolutely delightful – and I wanted something far more Autumnal.  (I don’t think that word means what I think it means…  Autumn-y?  Sure.)  So instead, I made a Chard and Sweet Potato Gratin.  I made enough for the husband and I to have some for dinner, to save some for the toddler for tomorrow’s lunch, and maybe even a little leftover for my lunch.  No dice.  We ate the whole pan.  Oops.

Sweet Potato and Chard Gratin

This is not a real gratin because there’s no bechamel.  I like to think of it as lazy (wo)man’s gratin – mix ricotta with another soft cheese or a splash of whole milk and you have something not at all as rich and delicious as bechamel, but serviceable and super fast for a work night supper.

  • Sweet potatoes – I used 3 smallish/medium-sized for a 2 1/2 qt oval casserole dish, but if I’d used the giant ones in the bag I might have only used one.  You’ll have to eyeball.  And yes, botanically I think these orange ones are yams, but I call ’em like they’re labeled.
  • Swiss chard (I used 4 or 5 giant leaves)
  • Ricotta (I used about 1 cup)
  • Goat cheese (I used about 3 inches from a goat cheese log) – as above, if you don’t like goat cheese, you can sub in something else like farmer’s cheese – very mild – or just a splash of whole milk to thin it out
  • Cheddar or other melting cheese (I used about 2 oz)
  • 1-2 slices bacon (If you’re lucky enough to have a Trader Joe’s, get the bag of Ends and Pieces – a steal at something like $2.99 a pound and perfect for recipes in which you’re cutting up the bacon anyway.)
  • olive oil

Chop the bacon into bite-sized pieces and fry until almost crispy.  Preheat oven to 400.Slice the sweet potatoes into long, thin slices.  Drizzle a little olive oil on the bottom of your dish to coat.  Layer one layer of sweet potato into the dish.

Slice the chard into thin strips, discarding the bottom stalks. Layer half the chard on top of the sweet potatoes.

Place the goat cheese in a bowl in the microwave for 20-30 seconds to soften (not melt).  Mix thoroughly with ricotta.  Using about half the mixture, dollop spoonfuls on top of the chard and use the back of the spoon to spread them over the layer.

Sprinkle half the bacon on top.

Place the rest of the chard on top.  Layer another layer of sweet potatoes to cover.  Spread the remainder of the ricotta mixture on the sweet potatoes.  Sprinkle with the remaining bacon.  Grate the cheese or break into chunks and disperse over top to cover up any “holes.”  Bake at 400 until sweet potatoes are soft when stabbed with a fork and cheese is melted, about 20 minutes.

ugly but delicious!

For Chard:
Trim? Yes, at the bottom of the stalk where it gets tough and splintered, though some people lose the whole portion below the leaves as well.
Edible when raw?  Yes, when young.  It’s very chewy, however, so if you get large/older leaves, definitely cook the stalks, and probably the leaves as well.
Worth the price of organic? Yes.  Greens are generally considered high on the Organic Preferred list.
In season: Fall, Winter.
Best with: Fall foods – winter squashes, pumpkin, squash, sweet potato, even apples and dried fruit like raisins.  Walnuts, pecans, bacon or sausage for protein – earthy, smokier flavors do well.  Garlic, carmelized onions, goat cheese – sweeter flavors complement the greens’ slight sweetness.
How to Store: Like other greens, wash in warm water, give them a cold bath, and store in the fridge for a few days or possibly as long as a week, though that’s pushing it.

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Kale Chips

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I was a little slow to the Kale Train, I think.  The only kale I’d ever seen or heard of prior to a year or so ago was Curly Kale, the green kind sold in supermarkets that looks a little like brain coral and gets chopped up very fine and stirred into Irish Champ.  Or at least, that’s the only thing I knew to do with it.

But kale comes in plenty of other varieties, and the one that was most revelatory to me was Tuscan Kale, also called lacinato kale or dinosaur kale.  Flat and deep green with a giant kale-like rib up the middle, Tuscan kale begs to be made into chips.  You can eat it any other way you like – sauteed into other dishes, or as a side, or my personal favorite, as with all bitter greens, prepared in any way, shape or form with bacon – but kale chips are really the perfect venue for this particular kind of kale to shine.  They’re quick, they’re easy to make, they keep for a good week if you can actually keep them around that long, and best of all:

My toddler loves them.  Ask any parent what they do to make their kids eat their veggies, and you’ll get various purees and promises and smothered in cheese and snuck into brownies, but my answer always is: Kale Chips.  On those days where he refuses everything, throws even fruit and generic O’s I bought because they were organic and it turns out they’re chock full of sugar, he’ll eat kale chips.  And for that, I love kale.

Look for dark, deep green leaves, ranging almost to a blackish-green in color, with a pale thick rib up the center.  The leaves look like they’re almost flat, though they do curl a bit at the edges, but up close you’ll see that the surface of the leaf rises and falls with the veins, like rolling hills.  Leaves can be smallish (4-6 inches), but usually range much larger than that, as much as a foot or two in length from stem to top.  Most recipes will tell you to remove the rib from all kale before eating, but we often don’t.  I usually get rid of the really tough splinter-y looking part at the bottom, but the rest can usually be sliced up small and tossed into whatever you’re putting the kale in.  Kale chips, however, are the exception to my lazy/cheap tendencies: lose the rib.  If you do plan on using the stem, be sure and scrub it with your thumb when washing – dirt tends to stick to the thicker part of the rib.

It seems like everyone has a recipe for kale chips out there, from Martha Stewart to Epicurious to Smitten Kitchen and thousands of other sites in between, but after making them week after week, I’ve discovered a few hints:

  • Lower temp is better.  I’ve seen 250, 275, 300 and 350 on different sites, and in my experience, anything over 300 ends up tasting burnt, even if they don’t look it.  Use an oven thermometer if you have an old gas contraption like mine, because the first time I made them, I made the 350 version, but it was pre-thermometer, so it turns out it may even have been more like 400.  That first batch was definitely burnt.  Subsequent attempts have taught me to dry them out rather than roast them.
  • Don’t use canola oil.  We don’t use canola oil for anything anymore, but when we first tried kale chips, we did and we did.  They were awful.  Canola can get a strange fishy taste to it (I read why once but I forget now) and it definitely came through on something as delicate and spare as kale chips.  If you like seaweed snacks, give the canola a try.  Otherwise, go for olive.  (Side note: I’m curious what sunflower seed oil would taste like – since nutty flavors go so well with bitter greens, I imagine it might be quite nice.  Anyone tried it?)
  • Spice it up.  As much as I try to eat greens at every dinner, I have to be honest: I don’t love them.  Hence the predominance of bacon in all my favorite bitter greens recipes.  Kale chips according to most recipes consist of olive oil, salt and kale.  And guess what?  They end up tasting like kale.  Crispy kale, sure.  Salty like a snack?  You betcha.  Kale?  Yup.  I prefer mine with garlic powder, but I’ve done them with garlic, ginger and a dash of soy in with the olive oil for an Asian-inspired version that were quite nice as well, and I imagine if you were someone that could handle spicy foods, some cayenne pepper or chili powder could be really interesting.  Definitely put something on there.  Weirdly, as an FYI, garlic and parmesan?  Not as good as I thought it would be.  It wasn’t BAD, they just taste better with straight garlic.

So my version in a nutshell:

Kale Chips
1 bunch Tuscan kale
olive oil
salt
spices of choice (garlic powder is my go-to)

Preheat oven to 275 or 300 – I usually just turn it on to somewhere in between.

Remove the rib from each leaf by flipping the leaf upside down and slicing on either side of it.  I often ignore this advice when cooking with kale, but with chips, you do not want it there.  Baby leaves or thinner rib near the top can be left alone if you’re feeling lazy, but you really want all leaf for these.

Slice the kale leaves into relatively uniform pieces.  You’ll have a few super skinny ones that were next to the rib and maybe some giant flat ones from the bigger leaves – that’s okay, you just want to try and get everything to be finished cooking at the same time.

Put all the kale leaves in a ziploc bag or bowl.  Add spices, and olive oil enough to coat – don’t be too stingy here, but don’t drown them.  I often go as much as a whole tablespoon, but I eyeball it – start with a little and if that’s not enough, add more.  They’re very flexible, but too much oil will make them begin to wilt.

Toss around the ziploc to coat the leaves, or toss gently with your hands if they’re in a bowl – do use your hands for the bowl.  Utensils tend to rip them to shreds.

On a large cookie sheet (I usually end up needing 2), lay down parchment paper or aluminum foil – this is not necessary, but it makes cleanup a breeze.  Spread out the leaves so nothing’s overlapping; but you can get them quite close to each other, like a game of Healthy Tetris.  Bake about 20 minutes or until crispy.  If they start to turn brown, your oven may be too hot or you’ve baked too long – they’re still edible, but they will taste more bitter.

Remove from the oven, and slip the parchment or foil off the pan with the leaves still on it onto a table, counter, or rack to cool.  Voila!  Clean cookie sheet and you don’t have to burn your fingers transferring leaf by leaf to a rack.  They’ll keep up to about a week in a jar or ziploc bag.  They don’t look pretty, but they sure taste awesome.

*Special Note for people with toddlers and/or people that are stronger than you think you are: You will accidentally crumble half of them into bits when you absentmindedly grab for one.  Save the bits!  They’re great hidden in a quick quesadilla or shaken into any pasta dish to get some quick extra greens that, at that point, just taste like garlic salt.

Looking for how to prepare Tuscan Kale?  Just like Frilly Purple Kale

Lemon Verbena

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There’s something so quintessentially farmer’s market-y about herb stands.  With their rows and rows of woody, leafy, flowery bunches, the scents mixing and wafting down the lanes, that absolutely evokes some hippie fantasy of strewing my front stoop with fragrance, medieval-style, and hand-crushing leaves into a peaceful cup of herbal tea which I will then sip on my hand-hewn wooden rocker while I watch the sun set over an uninhabited landscape.

But alas, I live in Los Angeles, so there’s no such thing as an uninhabited landscape, and frankly, I think herbal tea mostly tastes like lawn clippings.  Or punishment.  But I still love herbs – fresh ones and dried ones and flowering ones…  I grow them by the untended bunches, and then forget to use them in cooking because, let’s face it, they’re in the back of the yard that we never cut so I’d have to hike through calf-high grass to get to them, and I never remember I want to use them until I’m cooking dinner at ten o’clock at night (we keep odd hours in our household) so we’re also looking at slogging through dew, spider webs, and possibly encountering a pile of dog poop along the way.  Needless to say, I end up using my overgrown plants mostly as decoration, and annoyingly enough end up buying my fresh herbs.

But I was determined to find some more uses for the plants in my yard, and I started with lemon verbena.  All I knew about it when I planted it is that it smelled lemony (natch) and it would grow well in our I forget to water arid climate.  And it’s in my soap.  As a result, frankly, it smells kind of soapy.  But I think that’s just me.

This is actually an older picture. It’s now tied back with zip ties because it’s taking over the entire yard.

Well, grow well it did.  What started as a tiny little herb in a 4 inch pot that I was pretty sure wouldn’t last the month because I am a HORRIBLE gardener has become a tree threatening my tomatoes (the only thing I ever grow reasonably well.)  So I’ve got to use it for something.

If you’re buying it at the market, they’ll sell you a few small branches rather than the jungle that I own, but the first thing you’ll probably notice is that the leaves are sticky.  It’s weird.  They’re not sticky like honey, they’re sticky the way I imagine Spiderman’s hands.  And that proves I’ve lived with a nerd too long.  But it’s true!  They have fine hairs or something covering each leaf so they grip.  This is annoying when you’re trying to separate the leaves, but really really nice for the recipe that follows.

The leaves are pale to bright green, long and thin, and a little on the tougher side, as herbs go, so you’ll want to infuse them in something (tea, oil, vinegar) or chop them up small – they’re not particularly fun to chew, though they taste fine.  Though they smell almost overpoweringly lemony and sweet, the taste is actually slightly bitter and green with mere lemon overtones.  Imagine lemon zest if you also got a little pith in there.  It’s not a bad bitterness, just be forewarned if you’re expecting a lemon substitute.  It’s not.

But it’s lovely for an unexpected hint of lemon.  We added some to a rosemary pesto to give it a slight zing (recipe to follow with Rosemary post), but our favorite use for it (other than cocktails…yum!) was with salmon.  The grip of the leaves allowed us to layer them on top of a very nice fillet, bake/broil it quickly in the toaster oven, and voila!  A very, very quick meal that looked gorgeous and tasted very sophisticated.  The lemon verbena added a hint of citrus without blasting the fish with acidity, and the slightly vegetable flavor of the green leaves added a complexity that cut through the meatiness of the fish – though I think they’d work just as well if not better with a lighter fish or even chicken to play up the lemon flavor even more.  Next on the lemon verbena experiment train?  Lemon Verbena Sorbet.  I’m very excited, but also quite afraid it’s going to taste like old soap.  Anyone tried this before?

Lemon-Scented Salmon

Press lemon verbena leaves (sticky side down) in single layer on salmon fillet.  Feel free to place them prettier than I did.  Drizzle lightly with olive oil to protect the leaves from burning.  Bake or broil at 400 until fish is just barely cooked – it should be opaque pink rather than glassy in the thickest part, or flake easily with a fork.  Remove from oven, sprinkle with sea salt, and let sit 3-5 minutes to finish cooking.  If you prefer a more lemony flavor, squeeze half a lemon on top before serving.  You can eat the leaves if you like, or peel them off as you eat.

Parts Used? Mostly leaves.  The flowers are supposedly edible also, I just haven’t found anything on using them other than in teas.
Worth the price of organic?  I always think herbs are worth the price of organic since you’re using them in their raw form, often as an addition just at the end which means nothing is getting cooked out (which I guess makes no sense at all, but it’s my gut reaction), and sometimes in relatively large amounts.  If you’re drying them, all their properties are getting concentrated, which makes me even more inclined to go organic.  But it’s not like they’re on the Dirty Dozen or anything, so, you know, go with what makes you happy.
In season: Summer, though all year in warm climates.
Best with: fish, stone fruits (peaches, nectarines, cherries), sugar, infused in anything liquid that you want to smell like lemon (sugar syrup, oil, vinegar).
How to Store: Place the stems in water like flowers, or store wrapped in a damp paper towel in the fridge.  Cut branches don’t last long – maybe 2 or 3 days, and get woodier as they dry out, so use quickly.

Tromboncino Rampicante

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Sorry it’s taken me so long to post; I was busy giving birth to this:

Which leaves little time for farmer’s marketing and even less time for cooking and blogging.  But how do you NOT buy this when you see it at the market?

Especially if you like zucchini, which I do.  I’m a little annoyed at the Summer Squash selection this year, frankly – everyone’s got a blog post about what to do with all that zucchini that is so clearly taking over your garden that you need to make it into breads, fritters, cakes, casseroles, and other creative, delicious-sounding recipes, and here I am, zucchini-less.  My garden won’t grow (probably because I forget to water it), and none of the sellers at the market seem so flush with zucchini that they’re marking down the prices into the ridiculously-cheap category, which means if I buy zucchini, I’m buying it to use for its sweet, squashy self, not to use it up.

Which I guess is a gigantic tangent to: How I Found a New Yummy Zucchini.  Usually called Tromboncino Zucchini or Zucchetta Rampicante, it’s also sometimes just called Squash with some horribly misspelled version of one of those names in parentheses on the farmer’s handwritten sign.

Summer squashes have far more variety in flavor than one might expect, given that they’re always lumped into that same massive category.  There’s crookneck and zucchini and patty pan and little stripey ones that the husband and I like to refer to as hand grenades…  Rampicante is slightly sweet and slightly nutty.  It’s most similar to zucchini in flavor, but a little nuttier.  I don’t think it’s as mealy as crookneck, but sources differ on how to avoid the mealies with this guy: some say that the young ones start out quite mealy, others say that the younger/smaller fruits will always be the sweeter and more flavorful, so if you’re worried about mealiness, go with one of those.  How to tell?  They turn into a trombone as they grow, so shorter, straighter squash are what you would look for, though it’s possible to grow them straighter by trellising them, so again, look for short if you’re looking for young.  This sucker is pretty full-grown, maybe 2 or 3 feet long if you stretched him out.  Personally, I think the problem is steaming at any size.  People are constantly telling me to steam squash because it’s so healthful that way, but to me, it tastes like mealy baby food.  Not a fan of any kind of steamed squash, frankly.

They have a very pale green skin, sometimes almost pale yellow or tan, sometimes so light they look almost white.  They tend to have varied faint white stripes like some zucchini varieties as well.  The really nice thing about this variety is that all the seeds form in the bulbous part at the end, the way seeds all collect in the center of hard squash.  That means you’ve got this whole long length of stem with no seeds.  It’s drier and firmer than zucchini, though the pores near the skin do weep when you cut it, but I imagine if you wanted to make something akin to Rampicante Parmesan or Fried Zucchini (dredging in flour and deep frying) it would probably be excellent for that since it is drier than its cousin who can sometimes get mushy.  The skin is edible as well – a bit tougher than zucchini skin, but nowhere near winter squash toughness or even delicata squash or something in which people tell you the skin is edible but the texture’s tough and awful…   All this means that Rampicante are really, really easy to work with, so you get a lot of bang for your buck.  Which is nice, because I’ve only seen one or two sellers with them ever, which means they’re twice the price of other summer squash per pound.  C’est la vie for the experimental veggie eater.

Actually, that’s the weird part about Tromboncino – pluck it early, and you have got a summer squash that’s basically edible from end to end minus the seeds.   Let it grow big and keep it around, and the skin will grow tough like winter squash, so it stores well.  If you’re worried about your personal fruit having too tough a skin, go ahead and peel it.  I’ve only bought it as a summer squash; the online consensus seems to be that as it matures into a winter squash, the texture gets stringier, more watery, and less flavorful, much like the interior of a carving pumpkin, so I think I’ll stick with the summer harvest for now.

Like I said with the zucchini this year, I’m not wasting this puppy on “use it up” recipes, but you don’t need to.  Zucchini is often easy to julienne or similar because of its straight shape; rampicante is easier to slice into rounds.  If you have a food processor, chop the neck into straighter sections before putting through the slicing blade and you’ll have a gagillion Rampicante rounds in no time.  If you put the bent part in, you’ll have long slices instead.

I like to saute in olive oil and garlic and toss into practically any dish – it does take a bit to cook through to the center if you slice too thick, so try to keep them just a cm or 2 in width if you’re slicing by hand.  Half-inch rounds are just too big.  They’re also nice tossed with olive oil and salt and roasted on 400 or 450 like beet chips until crisp, or crisp-ish really.  They’re a great alternative to potato chips or some other horrible for you snack.

As for the bulb, scoop out the seeds, and chop the rest up any way you like.  Again, I always prefer sauteed in a little olive oil or roasted over steamed, but if you feel like trying it steamed, steam the bulb end since your pieces won’t be uniform in shape.  Hmm…maybe a mashed Rampicante?  Like mashed potatoes, but more summery?  I may learn to like steamed squash after all…

Rampicante with Sausage, Beet Greens and Goat Cheese

  • Rampicante Zucchini
  • Beet greens, stalks removed and greens sliced or torn into bite-sized pieces
  • Sausage, chopped into bite-size pieces (I prefer sweet Italian Chicken Sausage from Trader Joe’s)
  • Pasta (I like spaghetti in this recipe)
  • olive oil
  • goat cheese

Notes: There are no measurements because it really is to taste and depends on the number of people being served.  Half a trombone zucchini served 2 hungry adults and a toddler; likewise half a bunch of beet greens, but we’re veggie-happy and everything depends on how big a bunch you get.  For the sausage, my lazy strategy is to simply hold the sausage over the pan and use kitchen shears to lop of pieces – no cutting board to disinfect afterwards!  Same thing with the goat cheese:  I buy it in a log and just use a fork to hack off chunks right onto the plate.

Slice your rampicante however you like and remove the lower stalks from your beet greens, chopping them into 1/2 to 1-inch size pieces.  Saute in olive oil until everything starts to soften, then add sausage.  Cook until sausage is brown and slightly crispy – don’t stir too often or the sausage and rampicante won’t crisp up.  This is very much a “leave it alone, I have dishes to do and a toddler to wrangle while dinner cooks” kind of meal.

While these are cooking, boil water and start the pasta cooking – this goes nicely with any carb accompaniment, frankly, so cous cous, brown rice, barley, polenta, or anything else you fancy makes a fine substitute for noodles.

When the sausage is almost done, throw in the green parts of the beet greens – they cook fast, so now is the time to start stirring, adding a bit more olive oil if everything’s looking too dry.  When the greens wilt, toss the pasta in the pan and stir everything together (added benefit: if you mis-timed your carb cooking or are using up leftovers, here is where everything gets to be the same temperature, so feel free to use last night’s leftover Chinese food takeout rice straight from the fridge.)  If you’re watching your calories or using up leftovers, add a splash of water instead of the extra oil above – the hot pasta water is great for adding a little thickener.

Pour into serving bowl and add chunks/crumbled goat cheese on top – feel free to toss to distribute, but it will lessen the final appearance as the melted goat cheese deliciously though unattractively slimes every strand of pasta. 

Peel?  If it’s young or small or you buy it mid-summer, no.  If you’re buying in fall and it’s a big, old fruit, or if you just think it’s going to be too tough for your tastes, yes.  This squash serves both seasons of squash descriptors.
Edible seed? No.  Scoop them out and toss them.
Edible when raw? Yes, if it’s young, though I would probably only eat the neck of the squash raw since the bulb gets more winter squash-like, and I would shred, grate, or julienne – I’m not a huge fan of raw summer squash in the first place, and this variety is a bit tougher than some of his friends, so I don’t know that giant raw hunks of it would be the way to go.
Worth the price of organic? Questionable, but probably not.  Summer squash in general isn’t a horrible pesticide keeper, and winter squash is one of the least offensive conventional vegetables you can buy.  Rampicante is known among squash gardeners as being surprisingly resistant to many bugs that plague other squashes, so it means it probably isn’t getting sprayed down even as heavily as other squashes.  Since it’s so rare at the markets at this point anyway, I probably wouldn’t sweat it and would just buy whatever they have, especially if you plan on peeling.  If you’re going to eat it skin and all, you may want to take the monetary plunge, but I don’t bother with this guy, and I’m pretty picky about organic when I have the chance.
In season: Mid-late summer through Fall – Earlier in the season, treat like a summer squash; later in the season, peel and treat like a winter squash.
Best with: Garlic, basil, oregano; Italian cheeses (parmesan, ricotta, mozarella…); cinnamon and sage for savory soups; lemon or orange for splash of citrus; tomatoes and other complimentary summer vegetables like eggplant
How to Store: In the fridge when fresh, it should last a good week or longer.  Once cut, the pores begin to weep and it begins to dry out, so use it up within a couple of days at most.  You can wrap it in plastic or foil if you like; just don’t shove it into the fridge with the cut part exposed because it will leak sappy moisture onto your shelves or other food…Not that I’ve done that.  As winter squash, it can keep uncut in a cool place for as long as a couple of months, but it should be hard-skinned first.  If it’s still too young, it will just rot.

Candy Cane Beets

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Okay, so I know I waxed eloquent about Golden Beets only recently and complained about the earthy, bloody mess that is dark red beets, but how cute are these!

They look like something out of Willy Wonka or Candyland.  I want to skip through the Vegetable Forest, leaping between Chioggia stepping stones.

They’re called Chioggia or Candy Cane Beets, and they’re just like all the other beets except much, much prettier. Look at these stems!

I hope I can find some when Valentine’s Day comes around because I always end up serving tomato soup as the vegetable, and these are much more romantic looking. (Oooo!  I could cut them into heart shapes!  Alright, I’ve gone over the edge…  I’m not sure how a vegetable gets romantic in the first place…  I don’t think I want to know.)

Chioggias are more of a fuchsia or deep pink color on the outside than their bloody brethren, so if there are three kinds of beets lined up, golden will be orange-ish, traditional beets will be maroon colored, and these will be the paler red/hot pink kind you see in between.  (I only bought Chioggias and Golden, so no dark red beets in the picture to the left, just Golden for comparison.)

They also typically have candy cane stripes at the base of the greens where it meets the root, though they don’t have to:Once peeled, the resulting nugget can be almost all white like a potato, or deep pink stripes – the whiter ones will have paler or less pronounced pink stripes once you cut into the center; the deeper ones will make the really eye-catching slices.  The flavor isn’t as nutty as golden beets nor as earthy as red beets – frankly, they’re simply blander, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  They make the best chips, in my opinion, since non-beet eaters won’t be turned off by them.  As much as I love Golden Beets, they do have a distinct beet-ish flavor.  Candy Cane beets are milder and probably a better intro beet for those who really, really are afraid to try beets, though the more red they have (i.e. the more pronounced, eye-catching stripes) the more beet-like they will taste.  But, who cares?  Look how cute!

My biggest issue with Candy Cane beets is really an issue with my food processor.  I have a lovely slicing blade that should have made me beet chips in 5 seconds flat, but the beets are too round to go in properly.  The whole setup is designed for oblong things like sweet potatoes or zucchini.  Arrgh.  So in the meantime while I look on Amazon for a new lid, I had to handslice my beets to get them to look pretty, which is annoying because I have approximately Zero knife skills.  I can’t make even slices if my life depended on it.  (Which would be an odd way to threaten someone, I suppose: “Cut this beet right or I’ll kill you!”)

Regardless, toss with olive oil, salt and pepper, lay them in a single layer on a cookie sheet covered in foil, and roast at 400 or 450 until slightly crispy, about 20 minutes.  I like to flip mine halfway through so they crisp up on both sides, but if you’re not a good flipper (I am not), you don’t have to.  They’ll still taste good.  Unless you own a mandoline or some other device (like knife skills, perhaps) that will allow you to get uniform, very thin slices, they’re not going to get crisp like chips – they’ll crisp up on the edges, but the centers will remain slightly soft.  That’s okay.  Sprinkle with salt and munch away.

Note: The cuteness will fade as they cook – the colors become more muted, especially at the higher heat that also will give them brown crispy spots.  If you’re trying to impress someone, stick to the reddest slices you’ve got – the paler whiter ones will be brownish and unimpressive once roasted.

Info on peeling, seasonality, etc. is the same as Golden Beets.  Enjoy!

Frilly Purple Kale

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It’s a little annoying when I go to the Farmer’s Market and there are seven thousand and three varieties of kale, and they’re all very pretty but they all look a little like something greenspeople plant by the thousands at Disneyland in Autumn rather than something I want to put on my plate, and you ask the farmer, “How do I eat this?” and he replies, “Like any kind of kale!”  Yeah, thanks.

But I guess that’s why I started this blog in the first place.  I don’t have cookbooks full of kale recipes, and even if I did it’s unlikely I’d have tried enough of them to be able to speak nonchalantly about them, like, “oh, of course, I’ll just whip up my Kale a la Bligadibong.”

This guy:

is technically called Redbor Kale, I think, but I like to call it Frilly Purple Kale, for obvious reasons.  He’s not red, for starters.  But he was pretty, and I need more iron in my diet and it’s a little hot for Kale Chips (what are Kale Chips you say?  Glad you asked Post on them coming up shortly…  Posted!) so I figured, why not?  Let’s try something new.

I thought a kale slaw of some kind might be nice, since kale is related to cabbage after all, but I couldn’t decide whether to go traditional mayo-type, or interesting peanut dressing, or something else entirely.  Finally, I settled on modifying this one for the main reason that it contained no red peppers which I’m not a big fan of.  In addition to being a lovely little side salad, I very much like that it’s vegan, which makes no difference to a bacon-lover like myself, really, except that bacon is always my go-to for bitter greens, and probably isn’t the healthiest counterpart.  More importantly, though, since it’s vegan that means no dairy, which means it can sit outside at a barbecue most of the afternoon and not poison my friends.  Score!

Kale Slaw with Toasted Walnuts

My changes:  I used 1 bunch Frilly Purple Kale and then at the last minute threw in 1/3-1/2 bunch of Curly Kale because it was in the fridge about to go bad and I didn’t think I had enough salad.  As an added bonus, however, the salad turned out much prettier with a little more variety of color, so I think I’ll do this in the future as well.  The recipe calls for just one large carrot, but I had 3-5 medium (again, about to go bad – end of the week fridge clean-out here) so I went with those instead.  And again, I recommend a little heavier on the carrot – it gives it a nice crunch.  I also wasn’t about to take the time to mince walnuts, so I took my good ol’ trusty bag of Walnut Halves and Pieces and just sort of crumbled them into more uniform sizes with my hands.  I probably ended up using more than the 1/4 c called for, but I also liked that I could actually taste them.  Minced seems…picayune.  But do take the time to toast them – toasting nuts brings out the flavor so you can use less, and the bit of warmth when they’re fresh out helps wilt the kale a bit.

  • 1 1/2 bunches Kale, preferably Frilly types because they’re prettier
  • 3-4 medium carrots – I like  to use multi-colored instead of just orange, again, for looks
  • 1/3 cup red wine vinegar, separated into 2 tbs + what’s left
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, separated into 1 tbs + leftover
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • ½ teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon sea salt, more to taste
  • 1/4 – 1/2 c crumbled walnuts (toasted)

First thing after washing, you’re going to want to get rid of this guy:That’s the center rib of each leaf.  I often skip this step when I’m cooking kale, but for raw kale salads, it’s just too fibrous and unappetizing.

The easiest way to remove that rib from Frilly Kale is to fold the leaf in half and just run the knife down the side of the stem.

Please don’t mock my knife skills.  I have none.  I’m amazed I haven’t lost a thumb yet.

Pull all the lovely leafy parts away and toss the ribs into the compost pile.

Line up your leaves and slice them into thin strips.  This will make a giant mess that will severely disappoint your dog when she races over to see what you are spilling all over the floor.

Now comes the kinky part.  Put your shredded greens (purples?) into a bowl, add 2 tbs red wine vinegar, 1 tbs olive oil, and some salt, and give it a massage.

That’s right, a massage.  Don’t just toss it people, rub it in.  That’s the key to eating raw kale.  Raw kale is a tough, somewhat bitter little bugger, and as a tough, somewhat bitter little bugger myself, I can tell you, the only thing that makes it palatable is softening it up through a good massage.  And doing dishes for it.  Oh wait, that’s just for me.

Give it a good 3 minutes of rubdown, working the dressing and salt in, and then let it sit.  Turn on some ocean sounds for it so it can really relax.

Meanwhile, start toasting walnuts on aluminum foil in toaster oven at 325 for 8-10 minutes.

Peel your carrots and remove the tough stem end and maybe a bit of the tip if your peeling skills stink and it’s got dirt on it still.  If you have a food processor, I recommend attempting to put your carrots through the grater because if it works it’s super-fast, looks much nicer, and gives you just a wee bit of crunch without making the salad all about the carrots.  But since my carrots were getting a little wiggly, it only worked on 2 of them, so I had to chop the last one into shredded carrot size by hand.  Pain in the patootie.  Lazy lazy people might just want to buy pre-shredded carrots from the grocery store and I wouldn’t blame you.

Toss the carrots with the now-placid kale.  With a whisk or blender, combine the remaining oil and vinegar, honey, ginger, S &P, and garlic – do use a fresh clove if you’ve got it instead of garlic powder; it makes a difference.  Toss the dressing into the salad.Take the toasty walnuts out of the oven and dump them into the salad – toss quickly and carefully – they will be hot.  You will accidentally burn your hands and may suck on your fingers on instinct and then have to remind yourself to wash your hands again before continuing to toss.  Not that I did that….  You may choose to let them cool first, like intelligent people probably do, but I actually like that the hot walnuts help the kale wilt just a little bit more – if you’re making this salad right before eating, that’s a good thing.  If it’s going in the fridge until tomorrow, it probably doesn’t matter.

I honestly love this salad – it’s good cold, it’s good room temp, it keeps well, and it’s a lot healthier than cole slaw or potato salad for summer barbecues.  Also, it’s pretty.  I like pretty.

Some General Kale Facts:

Trim? Not necessary if you’re cooking it, though often preferred – for this recipe, lose the center rib.
Edible when raw? Yes – it needs to be massaged or wilted slightly to reduce the toughness, but it’s lovely.
Worth the price of organic? Yes – greens are on most “Must Buy Organic” lists, kale in particular, frilly kales especially in particular because pesticides get trapped in the curves and frills.  Organic all the way.
Best with:  Kale in general is good with bacon, goat cheese, vinegars – strong flavors to help counteract the slightly bitter taste of the leaf.  I also like soy sauce, peanuts/peanut oil, teriyaki, and other Asian flavorings for the sweet/sour interplay.
In Season:  It likes a frost, so technically fall, winter and spring, but I’ve never NOT seen it for sale unless it’s been 100 degrees for a straight month.  If one variety of kale is gone, you can usually swap in another.
How to Store: A trick I learned from an Internet stranger on a forum for all greens – as soon as you get home, fill your sink with warmish water.  Soak your greens as you scrub them with your fingers to get the dirt off the stems.  Drain the sink, then refill with cold water – the warm water opens the plant pores so they’ll absorb more water; the cold closes them to prevent wilting.  Pat dry with paper towels or spin in a spinner and put in the fridge.  Kale is a nice hearty green that we’ve been able to keep around for as long as 2 weeks, but I wouldn’t count on longer than a week if you want to be able to use the whole thing without yellowing bits.

Purslane Makes You Peaceful

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I had never even heard of purslane until about 6 months ago, which is surprising because I’ve always been pretty into herbs.  I thought maybe it was a new name that’s making the rounds or something, because when I googled it, it also came up as pigweed.  Now THAT I’ve heard of.  I think Thoreau ate it at some point in Walden, and what a horrible name for such a cute little plant.  I’m sticking with purslane.

Apparently, purslane, pigweed, verdolaga, whatever you call it, is a notorious weed that runs rampant all over the place.  I’m clearly in the world minority for thinking this is a new thing.  Frankly, I feel a little stupid, but there you go.  Everyone recommends you just pick it out of your own sidewalk if there’s no pesticides around, but for the life of me I can’t figure out which of the myriad of weeds in my backyard might be purslane, so I will buy mine at the farmer’s market for now, thank you very much.  I’m 98% sure we have some lovely patches of it growing where the grass died, but that leaves me about 89% sure it has dog pee on it, since it’s growing where, you know, the grass died.

It’s a green, low-growing succulent, which means it’s leaves and stems are a bit on the fleshy side, but for some reason I just think it’s adorable.  It’s leaves branch off from the fleshier stems – either green or a darkish red – and each little branch ends in a miniature nosegay of flat, happy, oval leaves with the thinnest amount of red or golden piping around each one.  Both stems and leaves are edible, and they have a slightly sour, slightly lemony flavor with a texture somewhere in between lettuce leaves and lettuce stem.  It’s definitely chewier or juicier than a regular old lettuce leaf, but it’s not quite crunch (not like a carrot; more like cucumber crunch), and not really as watery as you might imagine.  Purslane’s big appeal, other than being able to harvest out of your yard if you don’t have a dog, is that it is chock full of omega-3s.  It’s got the highest concentration of omega-3s of any plant, say some, so salmon-haters (talking to you, sis) and vegetarians, rejoice!  You too can get your omega-3s, and for way cheaper than wild sockeye.  It also has very high levels of vitamins A, B (pretty much all the variations), C and E, though apparently it’s also higher in oxalic acid than even spinach, which means very little to most people, but if you’ve ever had a kidney stone, your hackles probably just went up.  So if you’re worried about that stuff, don’t overindulge.  But in addition to Thoreau trying it out, Gandhi practically lived off the stuff.  He called it luni; most sources credit its origins in India, though it grows worldwide.  So if those two guys can eat it, I hereby decree purslane as the Harbinger of Peace and Harmony.

We tried our purslane two ways.  The easiest way is to simply chop into bite-sized pieces and toss it in among the rest of your greens in a lovely salad.  It lends a nice bite and an interesting addition, and goes very nicely with a simple oil and vinegar dressing (balsamic works better than red wine vinegar here – the purslane is a bit too sour for a sour vinegar.  I imagine sherry vinegar might be lovely as well, but I ain’t splurging on sherry vinegar to dress 50 cents worth of weed.)  This salad sounds awesome, but we didn’t have any zucchini on hand.

We also tried “Huevos con verdolagas” which is to saute purslane and onion, then scramble in some eggs, and wrap the creation in a tortilla.  I think corn tortillas are traditional, but all we had was whole wheat with flax seeds, so that’s what our huevos got. 

Honestly, I was only trying this recipe because of this blog.  The salad seemed a fine way to eat it, and the rumors of leaking mucilage when you cook this succulent skeeved me out.  But Huevos con Verdolagas was something of a revelation.

Chop up equal parts onion and purslane, stems and all.

Saute in butter until the onion starts to soften, about 3-5 minutes.Scramble eggs in a separate bowl and add to the sautee.  Scramble until the eggs are cooked, just a couple of minutes.  Wrap in a tortilla and eat.

So why was this such a revelation?  Because I really want to like purslane since it’s so good for me, and the salad was good, but the purslane works better as an addition there rather than the main event.  It’s a little too lemony/sour to be the only green in the show.  But this dish was an easy way to use a lot of purslane, and frankly, was surprisingly delicious.  The smell of the onions and purslane cooking reminded me of the smell of green pepper, which always smells great but ends up tasting like bile and old burps – sorry – so I was nervous.  But the taste!  It did taste like a bell pepper, but like the best parts of them without the bitterness.  It was sharp and acidic and had a little bite but not enough to be in the least bit harsh.  There was a little sourness and a bit of citrus, and I have to admit, I added some cheese because cheese makes everything better, but it didn’t need it.  I even forgot to add salt, and didn’t notice until I’d finished it.  THIS is how I’m going to eat my purslane.  In less than 10 minutes, wrapped to go, and chock full of yummy vitamins.

Many people recommend wilting it, boiling it, putting it in soups to thicken things, and in innumerable other dishes, but we only were able to procure a small bunch at the farmer’s market and it’s 100 degrees out, so doing anything involving soups or long prep time wasn’t going to happen this post.  But if you have a favorite way you like it, please post!

Trim? Not necessary.
Edible when raw? Yes, edible in all forms, though you either want it raw, or you want it cooked down to nothing – Since it’s a succulent, a medium amount of cooking (5 mins+) will release its mucilage, which is as gross as it sounds.  It means it will get slimy.  That slime will thicken soups and things, so you can let it cook a good long while and it won’t be so icky/you won’t even notice, but anything in between “raw” and “cooked to death” is probably going to ruin the dish for you.
Worth the price of organic?  I think so.  You’re eating the whole plant, so there’s no place for those pesticides to hide, and since it is considered a pest among gardeners, I imagine non-organic will be chock full of pesticides since it grows just everywhere and is so hard to eradicate.  I have no evidence for that last bit, it just seems to make sense in my head.  On the other hand, it’s classified as a “noxious weed” by the Dep’t of Agriculture, which means most people that routinely eat purslane probably think I’m nutso for purchasing it at all.  Just pluck it out of your sidewalk, I guess.
Best with: fish, cucumbers, garlic, feta – anything that goes well with a little lemony flavor.  Also, olives, anchovies, avocado, or other oily foods where the sour citrus cuts the grease nicely.  Avoid sour vinegars or other sour accompaniments – they’ll highlight the sour notes of the purslane and make everything taste ‘off’.
How to Store: In the fridge, washed, it should keep about 2 days.  Try placing the stems in water if your bunch came pre-tied stems down.  It gets slimy pretty quickly, so try to eat it as freshly picked as possible.

Heirloom Tomatoes

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Okay, I overbought on the tomatoes.

But you can’t blame me.  It all started last summer…we overslept one Sunday and raced to the market to try and get there before everyone packed up, which I highly recommend, by the way, if you’re looking for deals.  No one wants to cart crates of perishables back to the farm, so everyone slashes their prices.  Pickings can be slim, but they’ll also be cheap.

Which is how we found ourselves with a GIANT box of heirloom tomatoes for $10.  It probably weighed 20 lbs, maybe more.  It was awesome.  We couldn’t figure out what to do with them – we ate caprese salads and avocado salads and made fresh tomato sauces and fresh tomato soup and ate them raw and sliced for breakfast.  We were so worried they’d go bad that we stuffed them into every meal and somehow managed to finish them off by Saturday.

So the next Sunday we went back for more.  Imagine our shock and chagrin when we casually asked, “Hey, could we get one of those boxes like last week?” and the guy said, “Sure, that’ll be $40.”  Um, what?  Um, no.

Except we couldn’t stop thinking about them.  It’s been almost a year and I can still taste the sweet juice that dribbled all over my hands when I transferred the wedges to a plate, the sharp tang of balsamic and the creamy counterbalance of fresh buffalo mozarella, the aroma of garlic and lemon bubbling in the sauce.  See, once you’ve had fresh tomatoes, and I mean really fresh, I mean ripened by the summer sun and then hours later popped into your mouth, you become very, very spoiled.  I can’t eat grocery store tomatoes anymore.  I can barely eat homegrown Romas or Beefsteaks or any of the other standard-variety-bred-for-toughness-and-shipping varieties.  They taste mealy and bland and chemical-y.  They taste like what I always thought tomatoes tasted like, which is why I swore I must be allergic to them and literally THREW UP when my mom made me eat one as a child.  (Did I mention I was an actress in an earlier life?  Majored in Theater?  A bit melodramatic?  Oh, I didn’t?  Ah.)

So we’ve been tomato-free in our home since last fall.  Oh, we’ve probably cheated once or twice, picked one up for a certain something and been so horribly disappointed we don’t even remember it, but our salads are just greens and dressing these days, twiddling our tomato thumbs and waiting impatiently for the heat that will bring the heirlooms back to market.

So when we went to the market 3 weeks ago and a handful of farmers had them for sale, it was Veggie Christmas [Except when you taste these, you realize why they’re botanically a fruit.  They’re so sweet, they’re practically dessert.  Seriously.  I drizzled fig balsamic vinegar on one and it was too sweet to eat with the meal.  We had to save it for after dinner and have it with tea.]  Determined not to make last year’s Giant Box mistake and overspend, we bought a modest 3 happy fellows and took them home – where we promptly devoured them in about 12 hours.

So this week, when we were a little later to market and one seller slashed their prices by only 50 cents, we dove in.  They’re WAY too expensive, they really are.  Typical prices are $4/lb, and I’m not even sure that’s for organic.  $3/lb is considered a bargain.  But they’re so delicious and unusual and beautiful and you can just put them on anything – you can slice firmer ones or dice ripe ones for bruschetta or mush soft ones into sauce.  They can go in cold things like sandwiches or accidentally get warm like when you dice one on top of an omelette, or get really purposefully hot in ratatouille or soup, and there they’ll still be, sweet and bright and just a wee bit sour.  The really good ones, the heirlooms, the weird varieties, don’t hold up well.  They barely travel well from market to house, much less farm to store, so even heirlooms at the grocery aren’t the same as the ones you can get from the farmer, or grow yourself.  Look for firm but not hard.  A little give is okay; anything soft will turn within a day so eat it immediately.  They do get mealy as they over-ripen, but toss it into a sauce with half a good one to save the flavor and you’ll never notice.  Heirlooms come in every color and size imaginable – from teeny tiny to the size of a shrunken head, round and oblong and lobed and flattish,  in orange and yellow and  red (of course) and striped and purple to almost black and even ones that are still pretty green when ripe, so experiment and see which kinds you like the best – though I did ask a farmer this week and was informed that even green tomatoes should get a yellowish tinge as they ripen.  If it’s still completely green, even with green stripes, it’s not ready.  I like the orangey-yellows, the purples, and the deep reds myself.  Not sure what their names are, but since I’ve only got a few months to eat them, I’m not wasting any more time trying to figure it out.

The best way to eat heirlooms?  Simply.  A drizzle of olive oil, a shake of sea salt, and dive in.  But if you need stuff to go with them, keep everything nice and raw to really let the sweetness shine:

Caprese Salad: alternate slices of tomato, fresh mozarella (the kind that comes in a tub with water – preferably buffalo if you want to splurge, but cow’s milk tastes just dandy, too), and fresh basil leaves.  Drizzle with good quality olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and sprinkle lightly with salt.

Avocado-Tomato Salad: Chop avocado and tomato wedges into similar-sized chunks.  Toss with garlic powder and a dash of salt.  If the tomato is slightly underripe, you may want to add a teeny amount of olive oil or lime juice to get a little juiciness going, but I usually don’t.

Bruschetta:  Dice tomato and as many cloves of garlic as you can stand and mix with olive oil, salt and pepper.  Use more oil than you think you need – it shouldn’t be swimming in it, but all the oil shouldn’t get soaked up by the tomato either.  Let sit for up to a few hours – the longer it sits, the more the garlic will infuse the oil and mellow out, but we often don’t let it sit more than the two minutes it takes to toast the bread.  Lightly toast really nice sliced bread – go artisan here; skip the sandwich bread.  Top the bread with the tomato mixture, spooning the remaining oil in the bowl on to the bare parts of the bread.

Slightly-healthier alternative to above bruschetta: skip the olive oil mix.  Spread good bread with ricotta and top with diced tomatoes, garlic powder, and a dash of salt.  Add sliced olives if you want a little kick.

I could seriously go on and on.  Feel free to post your favorites below!  I’m sure this topic is going to come up again.  A lot.

Peel?  No.  I don’t even peel if I’m making them into a sauce – the skin is thinner than grocery store tomatoes bred for shipping, and I don’t mind it.
Edible seed? Yes.  I don’t like a ton of seeds or my concoctions to be too acidic, so if some of the insides leak out on to the cutting board, I don’t mind; some people strain the seeds, especially in a sauce, for texture purposes, so feel free to strain if you like.
Edible when raw?  Heirlooms are best raw, in my opinion, unless you have a ton you need to use up – then go for a same day sauce, not one you’re going to jar and freeze.
Worth the price of organic?  Questionable.  Tomato leaves are poisonous to a lot of animals (humans included) so tomatoes can survive pretty well on their own, and are pretty low on the list for foods that absorb pesticides like the dickens – they used to be high, but recent efforts have lowered their residue.  On the other hand, you’re eating the whole thing, skin and all, so it might be a good idea.  The good news?  Heirlooms are still considered something of a specialty item, so most sellers are organic anyway.  Hence the high price.
In season: Summer.
Best with: Garlic, balsamic, lemon, any kind of cheese but soft cheeses really let the complex flavor of the heirloom shine, almost any savory herb (basil, rosemary, oregano are all classics), zucchini, eggplant
How to Store:  On the counter.  Do NOT refrigerate!  Tomatoes leach out their vitamins in the refrigerator and lose their flavor.  Don’t cut into a huge tomato if you’re only going to use half, if you can help it – find something to put it in or have a few extra slices than you intended.  Ripe tomatoes that aren’t yet soft will keep up to a week; if they’ve got a soft spot, you’ve only got about 2 days max, so use it or lose it.

Golden Beets

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I’ll admit it.  After years of trying, I still can’t get totally into beets.  The first time I had them was borscht, i.e., cold beet liquid mush, the second time I had them was pickled from a jar, and after getting so nauseated from the smell that I had to not just leave the kitchen but the HOUSE to get some air, I was a sworn beet hater.

Beets are, shall we say, an acquired taste.  Imagine, if you will, a clod of dirt that someone has dripped peach juice on.  Take a bite.  That’s a beet.

Now the beet lovers out there are going to protest and call them “earthy” and tell me I should roast them, and they’re right.  Roasted beets do become an entirely different thing, sliced into chips and baked at high heat they’re actually better than potato chips (I swear!), but you still have the problem of looking like Lady Macbeth after peeling them and not allowing your toddler to touch them even though they’re FANTASTIC for him because you know you’ll never get the stains out of ANYTHING.

And then I discovered golden beets.  Like massive golden jewels radiating sunshine among the stalls, golden beets solve all the problems of red beets and taste even better.  The flavor is milder, for starters – they’re slightly earthy, but they have a nuttiness to them reminiscent of walnuts, and a mild sweetness like the smell of apples or apricots.  They’re absolutely gorgeous – slice them and they look like orbs of sunlight; halve them and their whitish veins shimmer out like rivers in a golden meadow; wedge them and they look like yellow sapphires just mined from the earth.

The smaller, the sweeter, as with most root vegetables, but golden beets will stay pretty sweet even in softball size, so the rule isn’t as applicable here.  Give them a good scrub and remove all the root hairs.  If they’re quite young and the skin is quite thin, it’s not absolutely necessary to peel them, but the skin toughens up as they get older (ain’t that the truth!), and even the young ones usually have some rough stuff near the stem, so peeling is usually required to some degree.  Basically, I default to: Peel, and if they’re young and you’re feeling lazy, half-ass the job.  When you buy beets, they’ll always ask if you want the tops off.  Most people say yes.  Most people are crazy.  Before I came to like the beets themselves, I used to get free beet tops from the market all the time – hang around a stall for a few minutes and someone won’t want theirs.  Offer to split the cost and it’s a win-win for everyone!  More on beet greens in a different post, but if you do take them home, chop them off about an inch above the beet part before storing in the fridge – they’ll quickly wilt while they continue to feed the beet.

The two best ways to eat beets, in my opinion, really come down to the two ways to slice beets.  If they’re relatively spherical, slice them as thin as you dare (if you’re fancy-shmancy and own a mandoline, now is when you get your money’s worth) so they resemble potato chips.  If they’re funky-shaped or too small, cut them into wedges.  Either way, toss with a little olive oil and spices of your choice – if I’m making chips, I often add garlic powder to the standard salt and pepper; if I’m making wedges, whatever spices I’ll be using in the main dish, or nothing until I decide.  Chips get spread out on a cookie sheet so they don’t overlap, wedges usually go into the toaster oven because I hate to turn on the big guy for one meal, but either way, I line the sheet with aluminum first because I hate cleaning up.  (There’s a distinct theme running through my posts, I’m noticing…I mean, I knew I was lazy, but when you put it in writing repeatedly…yeesh.  In my defense, we don’t own a dishwasher.  Yeah, I don’t think that makes up for it completely either.)  Pop either cut into a 400 degree oven for about 20 minutes.

Bake until chips are crisp or wedges are soft and beginning to blister.  Toss the chips with salt while they’re hot, but they’ll taste great hot or cold.  The wedges can go with anything – side dish, pasta, cous cous.  Cool, they make a really nice addition to a salad.  My favorite dinner with beet wedges:

Spaghetti with Goat Cheese, Beets and Walnuts

  • Roast beet wedges in oven (how many completely depends on your size of beets and your size of family – I typically use about 3 smallish ones for 2 adults and a toddler)
  • While they’re cooking, boil pasta – any mild preferred carb will do here really.  I also like this with cous cous, either whole wheat or Israeli, or pearled barley, but nuttier things like brown rice, lentils, etc. will overpower.  I like spaghetti instead of shapes for the same reason – keep it thin and out of the way.
  • While the pasta water is boiling, slice the beet greens into strips.  Saute in a decent amount of olive oil with at least one clove garlic.  (Decent amount = maybe 1/2 to 1 tablespoon more than you need just to stop them from sticking.  This garlicky oil will become your sauce.)
  • Toss together the pasta, the beets, the sauteed greens and their oil, adding a splash of pasta water and/or a little more oil if the whole thing needs more moisture.  Add walnut pieces and goat cheese.  If your goat cheese comes in a log like mine, use a fork to break off big chunks into the pasta bowl; pre-crumbled works fine too, but it will disappear into the hot pasta.  I like chunks.  Add a little salt and pepper if necessary, though I usually don’t.  It’s sweet and salty and oily and probably isn’t the absolutely healthiest meal on the planet because of my excessive love of goat cheese and walnuts, but it’s chock full of vitamins and vegetarian and oh-so-pretty.

Want the lunchtime version?  Toss the roasted beets (cooled) with mixed greens (include something a bit sharp like arugula, endive, or even just baby spinach), goat cheese, and walnuts.  Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic.  Same thing, only without the evil carbs.

Peel?  Yes, especially the thicker skin.  The young, thin skin can stay on.  As long as they’re well-scrubbed and no root hairs are left, the skin is edible; it’s just not very tasty.
Edible when raw? Technically…Some raw food types grate them into obscurity or juice them in order to eat them, but I don’t recommend it.  I’ve seen them sampled at the market raw with oil and salt, but if you’re a beet newbie, I’d cook them.
Worth the price of organic?  Not sure.  If you’re eating the greens, it seems to be a good idea to keep it clean, and lettuce, spinach, kale and collards – other similar greens – are all on the “Dirty Dozen” of pesticide-absorbing foods.  But most root vegetables hide beneath the soil pretty well, especially if you’re going to peel them.  If you’re keeping the greens, I’d make the splurge.  If money is tight and/or you’re buying your beets from the grocery store so you don’t even get the option of keeping the greens, I’d probably save my cash and risk conventional.
In season: All year, though most sources say June-October.  I don’t think I’ve ever NOT seen them at the market, though I know from trying to grow them that they like a cold snap.
Best with: soft, mild cheeses to counteract their natural sweetness; nuts (especially walnuts, sunflower seeds or similar) to increase their nutty flavors; sharp or slightly bitter greens – arugula, beet greens, radish tops; almost any herb – garlic, rosemary, thyme, sage quickly come to mind, but others swear by curry, dill or any number of other favorites.  Golden beets in particular, because they’re so mild, really go nicely with almost everything.
How to Store: With greens removed, store in the crisper – leave a bit of stem on top and don’t peel until ready to use, though you can scrub before storing.  We’ve kept them as long as 2 weeks or more, but a week or less is probably a better idea.

Pluots

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Finally!  Fruit!

I’m a fruit fiend, frankly.  Peaches, nectarines, plums, cherries…and don’t even let me near a basket of strawberries.  Not if you want any, anyway.

But when you’re trying out new stuff, fruit is pretty old hat.  There may be 5000 varieties of peaches in existence, but when all is said and done, you eat it like a peach, amiright?

Still, the number of varieties can be daunting.  Take pluots, as I did at the market today.  Pluots are a hybrid of plums and apricots that go a little heavier on the plum than the apricot, but within that description, there are a whole range of varieties, and each one tastes a little different.  I very much like the ones that are often called Dinosaur Eggs or the other speckled varieties, but I haven’t seen those around just yet.  Maybe they’re later bloomers.

Pluot skin, of any variety, is a bit more speckled than plain old plums, but otherwise they really can look almost identical if you get the dark ones like I picked up today.  Pluot skin is smooth like plums, not fuzzy like apricots, and until you get your favorites memorized – and even then, unless you know your farmer or something – pluots are one fruit that you absolutely HAVE to sample.  Pluots will always have a touch of sour, but they can also be very sour.  Some of that depends on the ripeness of the fruit, of course, but I’ve found that a lot of it is varietal.  These were listed as Santa Rosa Pluots, which I’ve not heard of before, but am assuming they’re hybridized off Santa Rosa Plums.  They have a complex sweetness when ripe, with a tiny hint of sour, sort of the equivalent of really good plain yogurt.

Let them get as ripe as you dare, almost too ripe, to get them as sweet and juicy as possible. A ripe pluot will have a small bit of give rather than be hard, but they don’t smell very floral the way peaches or apricots do, and they only get quite soft when they’re almost overdone, so ask if you’re not quite sure how ripe yours are.  Since a lot of pluots have greenish skin, hints of green near the stem aren’t a good indicator.  Pluot meat can be anywhere from yellowish to almost purple, sometimes even greenish-purple, though if it’s greenish on the inside that usually means it’s not ripe.  Otherwise, the variety is as endless as, well, the varieties of pluots.

Because of their complexity of flavor, I prefer to eat pluots straight up (unlike every other stone fruit, which I prefer to bake into innumerable delicious items that all go great with ice cream…).  If they do get too ripe, or if they are far too sour, saute with a little cinnamon and eat as a saucy dessert.  If they’re too sour, add a little sugar to the mix, and you can always add a little butter, but when they’re simply overly ripe they really don’t need it.  If you have any recipes in which pluots really shine, post below!

Peel?  Nope.  The skin is delicious – a little sharp around the edges, a little bit of chew like apple peels, but perfectly lovely.
Edible seed? No.  It’s a stone fruit.  This variety at least, is not a freestone, which means a lot of peach meat will hang on to the pit – another reason to just eat it straight up.
Edible when raw?  Definitely.  Wait until ripe.
Worth the price of organic?  The consensus is yes.  Stone fruits are notoriously hard to grow, which means if someone’s growing them conventionally, they’re likely loading up on all sorts of chemicals to keep all the enemies at bay.  While pluots aren’t specifically listed on most “Must Buy Organic” lists, plums are high on the list, and since you’re eating the skin usually, I’d err on organic all the way.
In season: Summer.
Best with: A sunny day and a napkin.
How to Store:  Ripen on the counter, in a paper bag to speed the process.  Store on the counter if you plan on eating soon; put them in the fridge if you want them to keep a few days longer.  Once ripe, they’ll keep on the counter about 2 days, in the fridge maybe as many as 4, but that’s pushing it.