Beets and Oranges

I love listening to Leonard Cohen croon about Suzanne’s half-crazy bohemian beauty. “She’ll feed you tea and oranges that come all the way from china,” he sang. Every time I hear the song, I see them eating mandarin orange slices together and drinking oolong tea. Did she wrap the oranges and her teapot in a scarf and take him down to her place near the river, sitting on a blanket, peeling the skins with her delicate white fingers as she fed the oranges to him one by one?

I never did much like mandarin oranges though. They remind me too much of the can they come in. Instead, I look for clementines or tangerines, but always seem to miss their window — or, if I’m lucky enough to take them home, seldom remember to eat them before they shrivel up and harden.

With this recipe, canned mandarins have found a place in my kitchen, paired with my favorite vegetable — beets, canonized by Tom Robbins in Jitterbug Perfume as “the most intense of the vegetables,” a vegetable with the fire of passion. Eating beets and oranges is like merging earth and sky — the peculiar, earth-bound beetroot and the lovable, sun-drenched orange effortlessly fall for each other somewhere in between.

I made this side dish for a dinner party this weekend, creatively and on the fly, because I had long, narrow beets in the fridge from B’s parents’ garden — curiously the size of mandarin oranges, I thought. But how could I make it special? I was reminded of the book I’ve been reading lately — The Book of Salt.

Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein lived together in Paris during the heady days of American expatriatism. To Stein, Toklas was everything beyond mere bedfellow — typist, confidant, hostess, and extraordinary cook. The Book of Salt peers into their life, telling us that Miss Toklas is the kind of cook who “puts absinthe in her salad dressing and rose petals in her vinegar.”

The idea of dressing a salad with a French liqueur demanded my attention, especially since I’d heard this somewhere before. In Lunch in Paris, the young female author makes something similar for a picnic for her boyfriend — Potato and Green Bean Salad with Pastis Vinaigrette.

So back to my kitchen, I tossed the roasted beets with mandarin orange slices and a couple splashes of pastis, which added a slight note of licorice to an incredibly agreeable dish. At the end of the party, not a bite of the happy pair remained.

*****

Cold Roasted Beet Salad with Mandarin Oranges and Pastis

Serves 10 as a side dish at a party

  • 2 bundles of beets
  • 2-ish large cans of mandarin oranges (eyeball an even ratio of beet to orange)
  • Something sweet (like agave, sugar, or honey)
  • Salt
  • Canola oil and olive oil
  • Herbs

Peel and cut the beets into pieces the size of mandarin oranges. Save the greens for later.

Coat the beets with canola oil, kosher salt, and a few turns of something sweet. Roast in a 375-degree oven 35 minutes or until lightly brown, turning once halfway through. Cool.

Drain the mandarin oranges and add to a bowl with the beets, a twist of olive oil, sea salt, black pepper, and two splashes of Pastis french liqueur. Add herbs if you have them, like chives and purple basil, which I have here. Serve at room temperature.

Cafe Ena and King’s

One of these past Mondays, B invited me out to King’s Wine Bar. It was a peaceful summer evening and I was supposed to turn him down, but I couldn’t — and he wasn’t supposed to ask me out, but he did. We couldn’t resist. It seems the only problem between us is how selflessly we act toward one another.

As we drove to King’s, anticipating another dinner together, something enticing caught the corner of my eye. It was Cafe Ena, humming seductively on the corner of 46th and Grand. I didn’t know it was there, and the unassuming neighborhood location surprised me. The whole place just buzzes. It’s in an old brick grocery with a plant-strewn patio, vibrant purple mosaic-like sign and awning, and an homage to Frida Kahlo gracing the door. In the split second it took to register its many charms, I had the insistent taste of red meat and Malbec in my mouth and South American romance on my mind.

But we were going to King’s, recently voted best wine bar. We took a seat by the window and looked through the menu in the quiet Monday air. We couldn’t find anything we wanted. From the small plates, the scallops looked good, but $13.95 for three seemed expensive, and the entrees didn’t seem special enough for the wine, or maybe for our mood. We passed on the food and settled in with flights of wine, red for me and white for him.

In a quiet corner full of setting sunlight, we read the descriptions of all eight glasses out loud, alternately taking a sip of each.

“This is what I’ve learned about wine,” I said, giving him my Malbec and French wine at the same time. “French wine tastes like gum.”

“Or like formaldehyde,” he said. “Try this.” He gave me the glass of New Age white, a total charmer, usually served on the rocks with a slice of lemon, like a South American aperitif.

We emptied our glasses as we sorted through the bigger questions at hand, happy to be saving our appetite for other things.

“We may be tipsy, but I think it’s safe to cross the street,” I said, leading us to Cafe Ena, where we got a perfect table in the corner of the beautiful dining room. The ultra-charming server came by and chirped hello, telling us Monday is half-price bottle of wine.

“You know what that means,” B said, ordering a bottle of Famiglia Meschini Malbec, made by a family from Minnesota who happens to run a winery in their spare time. I admired his daring move.

The perfectly poised server seemed to be smiling along with us, making me want to blush. He said the beef and the scallops dishes are very popular. “Let’s get those,” I said, “but we have to order guacamole, too.”

Am I glad we did. This impressive structure was among the best guacamole I’ve had, with fresh avocado, yellow and red tomatoes, red onion, roasted tomato salsa, micro-cilantro, and homemade chips.

The Argentine steak (bife de chorizo) came smothered with gorgonzola, with the garlic herb fries, sauteed artichokes, asparagus, and red peppers drizzled with chimichuri. The steak was well prepared, but I had to wonder why it was hiding so completely under all that strong cheese. It seemed to add too much Midwestern sensibility to the restaurant’s sexy Latin fusion.

The scallops (conchas) are crusted with cardamom and coriander and served with coconut risotto, sauteed spinach, and pineapple salsa in a lime beurre blanc. This meal surpassed my expectations. The bold flavors perfectly complement one another and make your tastebuds soar.

As we ate, I thought about how the exterior of Cafe Ena perfectly embodies what you find inside. It promises great food and romance, but not in a stereotypical way. Cafe Ena is full of a European sense of romance that infuses all of life, not just the special occasions between two people. I thought I’d tell B something I’d been meaning to share for quite awhile.

“You know, one of the many things I like about you is that you know a good thing when you see it,” I said. It seems pretty clear that I do, too.

Cafe Ena on Urbanspoon

How to Poach Risotto

Only once in my life have I acted on a deliciously unethical impulse when it comes to food. I poached a man’s risotto, and I don’t mean in a bath of lightly boiling water. I stole it. A guy made risotto for me and I took it out from under him and served it to another man.

It was our third or fourth date and this guy and I decided to have dinner at my place. I figured I’d contribute whatever was in my fridge at the time, somewhat wistfully imagining us dividing up a recipe together, chopping and prepping together at the kitchen island. But I guess collaborating is not what he had in mind. He showed up with every ingredient he needed to make risotto and a couple cuts of meat to eat along with it. He even brought his own knife.

He took the helm of my kitchen as if he had cooked there hundreds of times before. He grabbed a perfectly sized All Clad pan, tossed in some butter and a few turns of olive oil, and sauteed the onions he’d finely diced. He added the arborio rice, patiently allowing it to toast and then slowly soak up the white wine, salt, chicken stock, butter, and parmesan cheese, transforming it stir by stir into the plump, creamy texture it is famous for. He seared the meat and served it alongside a heaping portion of risotto the fine color of a delicate bird’s egg.

Unfortunately, none of his efforts in my kitchen that night did anything for me. We ate this great meal with nothing all that great to say. We eventually ended the evening with a sober salutation at the door and the leftovers of his heavenly cloud of Italian starch cooling in my fridge.

Dear reader, this is where I argue the risotto entered the public domain. It’s not as though I sat back with twisted fingers concocting a clever plan for what to do with the decadent offspring of a failed date. An opportunity simply came along.

The following night, I had a date with B, who also loves to cook. In getting to know each other, we talked about the food movies we’d like to watch together, like Mostly Martha, Ratatouille, and many others. That night, we decided to watch Big Night. A smile spread broadly across my face as I flashed from the risotto in my fridge to Primo the chef’s enduring passion for the familial risotto recipe that wends its way throughout the film. B and I burrowed next to each other on my couch with two plates of our bounty and two glasses of wine as Primo passionately dished out plates of risotto from the back of his kitchen.

Since then, I’ve decided every home chef should be able to make risotto without following a recipe. It’s your ace in the hole, an adaptable base that will convey most anything you’d like to put in it. Martha Stewart sums it up by saying a well-made risotto is a “culinary feat. Small, firm grains of rice float, suspended, in a rich, creamy sauce.” Is that sensuous enough? I would describe the full process, but I couldn’t do it any better than Mario Batali and Mark Bittman in this charming video. Follow the recipe once and try to look at it never again.

Marla’s and Me

I must admit. Something happened that feels as completely incongruous as stumbling on a snowball on a summer’s day. I’m seeing someone. Regularly. Who I met online. A fellow I mentioned a few times, who I’ve called B, has showed me the value of online dating. That’s right. Meeting him online has not only been enjoyable — it’s been rewarding. All of those questions, answers, boxes, pictures, headlines, and quizzes that are usually so tortuous have proven, in this case, to be illuminating, flirtatious, and fun.

Somewhere, a little mud-soaked pig who thought he was forever stuck on terra firma is sprouting a set of wings.

B’s pictures were full of character. We each gave each other 5 stars. He got me to answer more than a couple hundred of those dreadful questions that force you to answer a totally complex question in only one of three possible ways.

His profile charmed me, as well.

“I love substantive and offbeat conversations.”

Swoon.

“I spend a lot of time thinking about… making and keeping a home.”

Sign me up!

“I would like to explore some new culinary horizons.”

Alright, boy, then come with me.

Because explore new culinary horizons we do. One restaurant we ate at recently has proven to be a strong favorite to us both — Marla’s Caribbean Cuisine. This place is only a couple blocks away from me, but still, I always dubiously drove past it on my way to and from the gym. I didn’t think it looked special, so I somewhat smugly never went to Marla’s.

Score: 0 for delicious Caribbean food. 0 for the hungry critic who lives inside my head.

With perfect timing, however, Citypages came out with their “best of” list and declared this: Best Take Out 2010: Marla’s Caribbean Cuisine

And this: Marla’s Doubles: 100 Favorite Dishes

After that, one thing was clear: I might be wrong about Marla’s.

B and I have eaten there a few times since then. While the experience is consistently quirky, the food is always flat-out delicious. As we were happily eating in the spartan dining room, I flashed back to B’s profile.

“You are delighted when you judge a book by its cover — and are proven entirely wrong.”

Oh, sigh. Few things could be more true. I was so wrong that I’m delighted by how wrong I was! From the unique beverages to the killer plantains, Marla’s truly delivers a great meal.

There’s ginger beer.

Or a curious and refreshing sorrel soft drink.

Here’s those doubles Citypages raved about. Curry chana between two fried bara. Get your hopes up — they really are that good — just leave a little room for your hopes to be dashed. The first time I went, they had no doubles. The second time, the server said they still didn’t have any, but the chef shouted out that they did (after I had a minor, although eloquent, thing that could be likened to a tantrum).

The plantains are among the best I’ve ever had.

The roti are almost impossible not to order. Here’s dhalpourie roti with curry chicken. Dhalpourie is a soft flatbread filled with finely ground yellow split peas.

While we nearly inhaled it, it still wasn’t as good as the paratha roti with beef we had another day. Paratha is a soft flaky flatbread made with butter. Next time, I’m getting the flaky paratha with this lovely and fragrant chicken curry.

Here’s a rich, comforting plate of dumplings with beef stew. The menu, which is sparse on details, might lead you to think you’re getting a plate of filled dumplings similar to a dumpling appetizer. Not at all. The dumplings are plain and mounded high, ready to be eaten with bites of the filling stew, grandmother style.

While I don’t have a picture of the Jamaican jerk chicken, B and I agreed that the charred and spicy jerk was the best thing we had. At the same time, we’re also both aware that we haven’t yet eaten at Harry Singh’s, which Citypages declared the best Caribbean in the Twin Cities. Given our love of Marla’s, B and I are both skeptical, yet true to form, ready to be proven entirely wrong.

Marla's Indian & Carribean Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Ms. Dalloway’s Party

It still amazes me just how much it takes to throw a good party. You have to quite completely throw yourself at it to make it seem as if you did nothing at all — caring deeply to be nonchalant, working all hours to appear effortless, choosing recipes carefully to discreetly impress. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf reported wryly on a boring English luncheon, saying “The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes,” as if slipping into the voice of my favorite hostess Mrs. Dalloway whispering into the ear of a well-dressed guest nibbling appreciatively at one of her parties. I see the ladies conspiring in unison before a beautiful party spread, “No, no. Indeed, it does not. Now please serve me more of that beautiful trifle, my dear.”

The lamp in the spine lights on French cheese wrapped in paper and globe-shaped green olives you can pop on each of your fingers and eat one by one, on strange combinations like the sweet snap of peas blended with almonds, and on long-loved ones like squash, nutmeg, and heavy cream. It lights on minor collisions of tastes that contrast with one another, like the piqued tartness of citrus against the reassuring simplicity of bread. It lights on champagne citrus punch with white wine, and always on a simple bottle of beer.

More or less, that was my philosophy behind the food I made for my May Day party last weekend: Cilantro-pea spread with almond butter (from Chocolate and Zucchini). “Les cakes,” French savory cakes with black and green olives, parmesan, roblochon, and pancetta (from Epicurious). Squash bread pudding (from Food & Wine). Cucumbers with four types of roasted peppers, three types of citrus, feta, and cumin (from me). Globe grapes with chevre, crushed roasted pistachio, and mint (from me). Champagne citrus punch with Chardonnay and pomegranate (also from me). And lots of beer.

As I throw more parties, I’m essentially learning how to make the food disappear, even before it is eaten. It should recede quietly into the background among the flowers, plates, linens, and candles, offering a sense of something I can only think to call grace. There must have been about 50 people at the party. Tracing the connections we share would look like the New York City subway map, with many intersecting strands of friends and family, including many people I never met before. In introducing myself to one of these strangers, he said, “I never met you, but I heard the food here would be good, so I had to come.” I’m pretty sure that’s what I meant by grace.

In the end, the best part of a party is the noise of the door closing after the last person leaves. It’s so quiet you can actually hear it click, and you hope you are lucky enough to have that one favorite person there with you on the couch to take apart the evening, to avoid the mess with you, and to fall asleep with you. I wonder what Mrs. Dalloway did on those quiet evenings when all the guests had gone. She had married her husband Richard to be practical. Did she wish it was her lost love Peter with her when she closed the door, the man who saw the whole world in her eyes, who was filled with excitement every time he saw her, always saying, so affirmatively, “For there she was. There she was.”

Beet of My Heart

I opened my email the other day to find an enticing little note sent by B. “What’s your schedule like this coming weekend? I’ve been thinking about your love for beets, and I’m told Café Maude has something yummy along those lines.”

This was the first date idea he offered out of the blue — and I must’ve clapped a little bit when I got his invite. It’s pretty clear he knows the path to my heart is strewn with funky vegetables.

Off we went for a 6 pm table at Café Maude, a restaurant best known for how hard it is to eat there. Even at that early hour, we sat in a far, not-so-ambient corner near the kitchen, a flash of light uncomfortably lighting up B’s face every time the door swung open. I was looking forward to the charming cocktail list. To B’s dismay, This Charming Man was no longer on the menu, but he asked for it anyway. Nothing was going to come between him and a drink that could make him sing a little Morrissey tune. The bar obliged. I had Ivan Putski, a dirty vodka martini with olives, onion, and black pepper.

We ordered our meal in a sort of unplanned give and take, throwing out suggestions and narrowing it down one by one. We shared everything. We didn’t decide we would, we just did. Plate after plate, the server paced our meal, and B and I kept everything in the middle of the table, slowly eating and sharing our opinions of the food.

The salad of red and golden roasted beets, mache, frisee, chevre, walnuts, and truffle champagne vinaigrette was perfectly lovely. The house-cut fries were great, but the truffle-mahor “fondue” (a.k.a., room temperature dipping sauce served in a ramekin) was lackluster — and I still don’t know what mahor is. We were pleased but not impressed by the roasted Brussels sprouts with rosemary brown butter, onions, and granny smith apples. Same for the Tuscan rice and parmesan croquettes with asparagus cream, basil, and pancetta. They’re great alongside a cocktail, but not especially memorable, and the asparagus cream didn’t taste like the vegetable it was named for.

The last course was glorious enough to carry every other plate of food that crossed our table: PEI mussels (that’s Prince Edward Island for those of us not familiar with island acronyms) with shallots, garlic, white wine, sweet tomatoes, chives, and grilled baguette. It just sang. The only problem is they served it with one lonely slice of thinly cut baguette, which doesn’t make sense, not on any island.

“I love eating with you,” B said. “When I go out with other people, we don’t share and it isn’t nearly as much fun.”

He’s right, I thought. Have you ever eaten with friends who get territorial about their meal? Those solitary souls eat by themselves, no matter how many people are at the table. Not only did B and I share this time together, we shared the same experience.

“And eating with you reminds me of that scene in Julie and Julia,” I said, “where Julia and Paul eat their first meal in Paris together, enjoying it so much they can barely keep their mouths shut.”

We ordered dessert, and after the server left, I posed a question that had been on my mind for awhile. “Would Julia have been the same without Paul? I mean, would she have been nearly as successful without him?”

B replied, “Of course not.” It’s true. It was all the eating they did together that filled her with such passion.

After cheesecake and a chocolate pistachio torte, we drove off to Magers & Quinn for books and Golden Leaf for tobacco to continue the pleasures of the evening, two bon vivants not exactly taking over Paris, but at least enjoying (and sharing) our own little corner of the world.

Mother’s Day Meringue

The following post originally ran here,  the April/May 2010 issue of my column The Sense of Taste with Valley Natural Foods, the lovely organic foods co-op in Burnsville. Go send them your love! It’s a hard-working co-op with a great community feel. In the meantime, if you would like to make the mothers in your life something charming for Mother’s Day, the recipe is for you.

***

My dear Grandma Polly left us on Mother’s Day more than 10 years ago. When I was a young girl, I used to call her Gob-a-gee. I still remember her looking over to me, saying, “Like chicken? Take a wing.” She’d put out her crooked arm, lock it into mine, and we’d hop a bus to go shopping on Mitchell Street in Milwaukee. She gave me apples and peanut butter every day after school, and her breaded pork chops hissed loudly in the frying pan. She also made a mean split pea soup so green and mushy my little brain never understood how anyone could eat it.

Over the years, I’ve collected as many things of hers as I can—crocheted afghans, embroidered linens, fine china, and plenty of old pictures. In my favorite one, she and my grandfather, who died before I was born, are sitting together on a wooden pier. She’s wearing overalls and holding an old cane fishing pole, smiling eagerly. He’s rugged and effortless with a pipe casually hanging in his mouth. They are stunning together and, despite time and place, my love for them feels as real as anything I know.

This month, I chose to make something as evocative as the memories of a grandmother. Pavlova, a charming, airy dessert, piques your senses with its ethereal flavors. In Australia and New Zealand, it is so revered every grandmother probably has a version of her own.

One bite and you can see why. Pavlova has a mesmerizing effect. The crunchy, yet soft meringue, silky cream, and tart fruit topping all tug at your attention. To further the effect, I added rose water, vanilla, and a hint of sage at the end. Each bite of this recipe dances in your mouth, much like the delicate ballerina Anna Pavlova who inspired its creation in the 1920s. It’s said that a hotel chef was so enchanted by her tutu laced with green roses that he used meringue and kiwi, Pavlova’s traditional fruit, to mirror her beauty on the plate.

Another wonderful thing about Pavlova is that it’s easy. This spring, put some flowers on the table and take a lovely afternoon to reminisce with your mother or grandmother while enjoying this heavenly homage.

*****

Grandma’s Rosewater Pavlova with Sour Cherries and Vanilla Cream

Serves 8

Your meringue will probably crack in the oven, which is normal and only adds to the patina. You can buy rose water at Holy Land or in the wellness department of most co-ops. You can also use cherry jam or sliced fresh or frozen cherries.

Meringue

  • whites of 5 fresh eggs
  • 1 cup caster sugar (synonymous with superfine sugar)
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 2 teaspoons distilled white vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon rose water

Topping

  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 jar sweetened sour cherries
  • finely chopped sage

Preheat oven to 250°F. Place egg whites in a bowl and whisk with a handmixer until billowy, about 3 minutes on high speed. While whisking, slowly add the sugar and then the cornstarch to the egg whites until the mixture becomes glossy, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the vinegar and rosewater and whisk again to combine.

With a spatula, shape the mixture into eight 4-inch rounds on two baking trays lined with parchment paper or tin foil. Holding the spatula perpendicular to the meringue, turn it in a circle to create a slight indentation in the center so the fruit and cream have a place to rest.

Bake until the crust is pale and golden, about 40 minutes. Turn the oven off and let cool inside for 1 hour or overnight.

When ready to eat, whisk the cream in a bowl until stiff. Add vanilla and sugar and whisk until peaks form. Line the pavlova on small dessert plates. Spoon on a generous amount of cream and then sour cherries and sprinkle lightly with sage. Serve with a linen napkin, small spoon, and herbal tea. You can also take the more traditional route and make one large pavlova. I just think there’s something special about having an individual cloud of meringue served especially for you.

Just be careful, in any case, as those gorgeous sour cherries might ooze all over your plate.