You know you’re getting old when you attempt to pluck a hair between your brows and upon close inspection discover it’s actually a wrinkle. Sigh. Perhaps the same can be said about anyone boasting a fondness for pickled beets.  They are soft and they are cheap–perfect for Grandma to store in an ancient Ball jar atop her night stand in the nursing home. To be honest I had never even tried one until last summer.  And then I made these:

Now, roasted beets are another story. Roasted beets are classy and delicious, especially in a salad topped with a panko crusted ball of goat cheese like at Feast in Chicago.  But seriously, you could serve old shoestrings with fried goat cheese and I just might dig in. I typically roast my beets, very much like this. But recently I read a touching post on Food and Fiction. The author’s beloved mother-in-law had passed away and she gave us lucky readers her pickled beets recipe in tribute.

I had a nice bunch of organic beets in my veggie compartment and so, I pondered. Could pickled beets actually be tasty? I like pickled things, I like beets. Why shouldn’t they be earthy, sour, sweet, rich, yet low-fat delights? I definitely didn’t want to waste my beets on Grandma food, so I upped the ante by using whole peppercorns, a little spice and quality vinegar. If you are the sort that buys crushed red pepper in a plastic shaker only to have it sit next to your bay leaves and mustard seeds losing flavor for the next three years, please, do yourself a big favor and but some whole dried chilies and crush at the time you need them. They can typically be found near the Latin foods at your grocery store.

Don’t be surprised if your urine comes out a tinge pink after consuming the beets–at least that’s what happens to me. FYI? Maybe. But I take it as a sign that my body still works and that even though I’m housing pickled beets, a nursing home won’t be housing me anytime soon.

Pickled Beets

1 bunch beets, typically 3 large or 4 smaller

1/2 cup cider vinagar

1/2 cup red wine vinager

1 to 2 whole dried chilies

1/2 teaspoon whole peppercorns (about 8 or so)

1/2 cup water

1/8 teaspoon salt

2 Tbsp sugar

1/2 thinly sliced red onion

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Trim and wash the beets (don’t you dare throw away those beet greens!  They are packed with nutrients, use them cut up in with your salad greens or sauté like spinach).  Wrap each beet tightly in foil and place on a baking sheet in oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour.  Remove and let cool. Peel off the skins wearing rubber gloves, unless you want pink fingers for the next 2 days, which I don’t mind.  Slice and place in glass casserole dish.  Bring water, vinegars and sugar to a boil, allowing sugar to completely dissolve.  Turn off heat and add salt, peppercorns, chili and onion.  Let sit for one minute, then pour over beets.  Cover with foil and place in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours.  I put mine into a jar after that for easier, prettier storage.  Eat within one week.

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There is something about the parsnip that seems fancy.  Frenchy, even.  I can recall my mother first preparing them for our family when I entered the seventh grade. We loved them.  That same year I had started a new school.  I’m not sure the exact assignment, or even what class, but I know I had to make a presentation about European food.  I brought in chocolate mousse and room-temperature sautéed parsnips, claiming absolutely everyone ate the carrot’s pale cousin this way in Paris. Despite my completely unresearched selling point, only one of these items proved a hit at 9:30 in the morning with a bunch of embarrassed, barely budding 13 year olds, the other: a gag inducing miss. Couple this incident with my fondness for wearing skirts when absolutely everyone else wore jeans, and you’ve got the makings of one hell of a class weirdo.

And yet, I have not allowed middle school memories to scar me.  I still wear mostly skirts, and I love me some parsnips.

These days I like to par boil them for just a bit before giving them a very light coating of real maple syrup and roasting them at a high heat.  Par boiling is a technique that I’ve only started using recently, but I feel like it has changed my life.  It has certainly changed my potatoes–try par boiling them for 4 or 5 minutes before roasting in olive oil, they come out so much better than just straight roasting.  Parsnips don’t need as long.  Two to three minutes tops.  I like to use herbs whenever possible, and because parsnips are so good with a light drizzle of maple syrup, crispy sage seemed like the perfect match.  Also, I cannot not think of this amazing customer complaint whenever I think of maple and sage together. I may not be French, but I am from the North.

Maple Glazed Parsnips with Caramelized Sage:

3 parsnips, peeled and cut into sticks

2 teaspoons olive oil

2 tablespoons maple syrup

pinch sea salt & pepper

1 – 2 bunches sage (about 6 leaves)

1 Tablespoon unsalted butter

1 teaspoon brown sugar

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil.  Add parsnips and allow to boil for 2 minutes.  Drain well.  Drizzle olive oil over a cookie sheet. spread the parsnips over the sheet and top with maple syrup, sea salt and fresh black pepper.  Toss and put in oven, stirring and rotating after 10 minutes.  Roast 10 minutes more or until golden.  Meanwhile, melt the butter in small saucepan over low heat.  Add brown sugar.  Stir and raise the heat so the mixture just begins to bubble.  Toss in sage and swirl about to coat.  Sprinkle a little salt over top.  Cook sage until crispy, it won’t take long. Remove with tongs and allow to cool.  Crumble over finished parsnips.

Ever since I learned how simple it was to clarify butter, I’m constantly coming up with recipes where I couldn’t imagine using anything else. For anyone out there who doesn’t often employ this simple technique, let me demystify it for you.

Clarified butter is just butter which has the layer of foamy white fat removed from the top after it has been heated and melted down. Heat the butter in a small sauce pan until it melts and just begins bubbling. Turn off the heat and use a metal spoon to gently scrape off and discard the white top layer.  You are left with a sweet, golden goodness reminiscent of movie theatre popcorn butter.  Making clarified butter is quick, but it will give your veggies or whatever else you use it for–the other night I seared our Valentine’s dinner of scallops in a bit of clarified butter and grape seed oil and they came out caramelized to perfection–a rich, incomparable flavor.  Because of that, a little can go a long way. Which is good, because unless you are Paula Dean, bathing veggies in butter isn’t an everyday thing. I like to think that because you are taking off a layer of fat it isn’t quite as bad for you. I haven’t investigated this theory. And I don’t intend to.

My good friend Ashley writes the very elegant blog Food Swoon.  Her Pommes Maxim post heavily inspired this first entry.  Her version calls for Yukon Gold potatoes and a lot of clarified butter.  They are creamy and crunchy little slices of heaven, but I switched things up by using sweet potatoes, chili powder, brown sugar and about half the butter.

I painstakinly arranged these into little circles before cooking in an attempt to make mine look even half as pretty as Ms. Ashley’s, but normally I would just spread them out in a single layer on the baking sheet.

As my friends can attest, I am a saucy girl.  I learned to pair my sweet potatoes with a good BBQ sauce while dining down the street at The Smoke Daddy. I only bought Guy Fieri’s sauce because it was on sale.  On his television show, Guy’s food usually looks pretty spot on, but I just have a hard time trusting someone who does that to their hair on purpose. Same with Anne Burrell–her recipes are full of flavor and reliable, but how can I be expected to take a woman sporting this ‘do seriously? Regardless, Guy’s Kansas City style BBQ sauce turned out to be mighty tasty. Hair-raisingly good even. Sorry, couldn’t help it.

Sweet Potato Petals:

2 medium sized sweet potatoes

3 tablespoons butter

1 generous tablespoon dark brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon chili powder

sea salt & cracked black pepper

3 tablespoons

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Peel and slice the sweet potatoes very thin.  A mandolin would work well, but my trusty Henckel and a bit of patience did the job just fine.  Heat the butter and carefully remove the top layer of foam.  Toss the potatoes, clarified butter and the rest of the ingredients in a bowl, coating well.  Arrange the potatoes on a large baking sheet.  Place in oven and cook for 30 minutes or until soft with crispy edges.  Serve with a zesty BBQ sauce.