Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Ode to Spring..and some words about foods I used to not like

Spring has been with us AZ folks for several months now, so it's time I do a food post that's appropriate to the seasonal cooking JTK and I strive to do. When I first learned about seasonal cooking, I thought, who cares? I can get whatever I want most the time at the grocery store, why should I pay attention to seasons? Well, first, and most important is the food TASTES BETTER when it's in season near where you live. Second, it's better for the environment to not be importing things like berries in the middle of the summer that have to be shipped and driven all the way from South America. If you want fresh berries in December, go to the southern hemisphere! They don't even taste as good....sorry to say South American farmers.

I realize that some people live in climates (mine being one, come summer time) that fresh produce is not available year round. I understand some rules need to be bent. But for the most part, I'm all about it. For more on this topic, I suggest Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life . To find out how to eat more regionally and get fresh produce, visit Local Harvest to find a CSA...or if you're lucky enough to live near a farmer's market, support it by going there to buy your produce.

OK, I'll get down off the soap box about eating seasonally and locally for now.

One of my new favorite things to eat in season is roasted beet salad. Yes, beets are something I used to put in the category of "I don't care for that so much, thanks". Suddenly beets are yummy when paired with the right things (or even pickled!). Not to mention they are absolutely beautiful with their striations, visible once you slice into them. They're literally food works of art. As for flavor, the earthiness used to be a bit of a turnoff to my taste buds. Fortunately, that has changed by trying beets in new contexts. Thanks to JTK and one of my favorite places to eat, Essence Bakery in Tempe, I have a springtime crush on beet salad! Include some goat cheese, fresh greens, and other succulent treats like candied walnuts for crunch and sweetness...all of the flavors balance each other out perfectly. Oh and did I mention, this counts as eating your vegetables...Mom would be proud! How did flavor-town get to be healthy too?! Read on to find out how to make your own version.
To make this salad, there's a bit of prep ahead work involved. First, I didn't have any candied nuts on hand, so one Sunday afternoon I decided to make my own. I pretty much followed this recipe from Chow and it worked out great. Next, to get the beets in perfect-for-salad condition, they do need to be roasted and cooled prior to puting them in a salad. To roast fresh beets, simply put trimmed beets on a baking sheet or in a shallow pan in a 250 degree oven for about 45-60 minutes. Pull them out when they're easy to stick a fork in (aka: fork tender). Once cooled, peel the skin off using a towel or rinsing with water. Roasted beets can be stored in a container in the fridge for about a week.

Construct the salad to your preference. My favorite method, encouraged by my wise executive chef de la casa, is to mix the dressing in a large bowl first so you can just add the greens and toss by hand. For the salad shown here I used some red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt, pepper and just a wee bit o' dijon mustard for the dressing (Dad would also be proud, making my own dressing by hand!). Whisk until the emulsion is formed. Add greens and toss gently. Transfer the greens to your plate and place sliced roasted beets, dabs of goat cheese, and candied nuts to your liking. Isn't it lovely? I think it says spring. I especially like the combination of gold and red beets.

The moral of the story, ok...really there's two morals: 1)eat in-season, it just tastes better!; and 2)keep trying foods you think you don't like. You may just find you like new things when prepared with different ingredients (what I call "the right ingredients"). In fact, just in the last 2 years alone, I have recently converted to loving the following things I previously could hardly stand: arugula, mushrooms, cooked spinach, and beets. What's really funny is that I LOVE these things now. I don't always like them by themselves in their raw form, but pairing these things with the right ingredients makes all the difference in the world of tastebuds.

Enjoy spring and it's great bounty of fruits, vegetables, and herbs while they're here. In the desert we're already seeing over 100 degree heat so I know our spring is already out the window. See you next year, dear beets!

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