8 March 2009

Fair enough

It was one of those rare sunny hours of an ordinarily gloomy day in Amsterdam when the one and only wise thing to do - even if you had lots of others, decidedly more urgent ones - was sit on a sun-lit bench on a canal side, greedily soaking in the sunshine, and eating chocolate macaroons for complete happiness.

“We Amsterdammers deserve sunshine too,” said Alex, who is a New Yorker through and through; also, a writer, my date, and, among many other things, a quirky beet connoisseur, and – please embrace yourself - my personal brain coach.

I’ll explain in quick succession.

I met Alex shy of a month ago when I figured I’d better find a good date on whom I can test hundreds of to-try recipes rather than cook only for myself. (If I char a sirloin, for example, I’d better share it, you understand.) I took to the man because his favourite game as a kid was stoop ball (in his words: “a pink spongy ball bounced off a Brooklyn brownstone”); and also because he can make lemon meringue pie. And not to forget about the beets (beets!) thing.

Aside from such unique properties, Alex has a weefully quirky sense of order, or logics, or whatnot. For example, he may start by inquiring after my moods, which, I should say, is a wise thing to do in general; then, quite unexpectedly, switches to things that require my thorough thinking upon (‘What do you like best: bread or butter?’). When I get aflame with agitation in that I can’t figure out what to say (indeed, what do I like best: bread or butter?), he always argues that by asking me polar opposite questions he stretches my mind (a coach!) in different directions. He adds that if I want to hone my writing skills I should have a well-exersiced wild mind. Voila.

But back to Amsterdam. We were sitting on a sun-lit, dark wooden bench on a canal side, asking each other questions, and eating giant (real behemoths) chocolate macaroons. Ducks and swans busily navigated the canal waters; cars and bicycles manoeuvred down the narrow, cobblestone streets; Alex and I sunbathed, having on thick scarfs, woolen winter coats and all.

Then Alex asked me what I loved about Amsterdam (emboldened as he was by the sunshine). I paused to think. Here is what I said:

“I love the image of the city. To me, she looks like the Violinist by Chagall: real but also un-, quirky but so elegant. Just like the painting itself.”

“Fair enough.”

“Now your turn”, I said, nibbling on those chocolate macaroons.

“Perhaps the controlled chaos of bike traffic, feeling carried along by the flow, the ugly rusted things piled up by the canals, the vague feeling of being in a 1940s film on certain streets, the black bikes and umbrellas, and gray streets and skies.”

“Fair enough.”

Then there was a few minute’s silence, chocolate macaroons being a marvelous conversation stopper.

“What did you cook lately?” (This is, obviously, what he means by exercising my mind, you understand.)

“Beet salad with prunes and garlic-walnut sauce” I replied nonchalantly, brushing the crumbs off the skirts of my woolen winter coat.

“I think I may want a recipe,” said Alex (always the beet connoisseur), devouring the last left chocolate macaroon.

Fair enough, I thought.

I chanced upon the original recipe (Beets with Walnut-Garlic Sauce by Mark Bittman) when toiling through the New York Times’ Dining and Wine Section. In the adjacent article, Bittman argues for divorce between goat cheese and beets in salads (“We can give the goats a break!”), however scrumptious. Diversity won’t hurt.

I tweaked a few techniques in the recipe to meet certain limitations in my kitchenette equipment since the recipe has you bake beets in an oven, and puree the garlic-walnut mixture in a food processor; and I have neither the oven nor the food blender respectively. Which - I agree, My Dear Reader - is extremely trying.

I don’t remember from whom exactly but long ago I learnt that beets, prunes, garlic and walnuts pair breezily, each contributing to the sweet earthiness and a subtle acidity of another. In fact, this combination is quite common in Russian winter salads (or the ones my mother used to make on the run), with the only difference is that walnuts and garlic are not cooked. Now that I discovered this recipe I feel quite evangelical to spread the word of wisdom to my female relatives. They are all good cooks but more knowledge and, again, diversity won’t hurt indeed.

Beets with Prunes and Walnut-Garlic Sauce

Adapted from the New York Times and Mark Bittman

Serves 4

4 large beets, trimmed of greens, thoroughly washed and quartered
2 cups prunes, pitted and finely diced
1/4 cup olive oil
¼ cup walnuts, finely chopped
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
juice of 1 medium orange
salt and pepper
ruccola leaves for garnish

1. In a medium sauce pan, bring 4 cups water to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer, add the beets and cook uncovered until soft (not mushy), 30 mins to 1 hour. Cool. Cut off the tops and roots and slip off the skins (they really peel off easily). Slice the beets into wedges or cubes and set aside.

2. Dice the prunes finely. Combine with the beets.

3. Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant and slightly browned, about 3-4 mins. Add the chopped walnuts and proceed cooking (over low heat), about 3-4 minutes more. Stir continuously to avoid burning. Turn off the heat. Let slightly cool. [At the end of cooking time I also added 1 tsp walnut paste, simply because I had some (bought in a deli store)].

4. In a small bowl, combine the walnut-garlic mixture with orange juice. Add a generous pinch of salt and garlic.

5. Toss the beets and prunes with the dressing.

6. Garnish with ruccola leaves or parsley and serve.

“Are you hungry now?”, asked Alex after I recited him the recipe.
“I am starving!” I testified.


Cinnamonda said...

Oh, what a cute post, Anya! :)
Recipewise the combination of beets and prunes, and walnuts is completely new for me. I'm more used to beet salads with mayonnese (and sometimes also horseradish), as they are sold in every food store here, but your recipe is really something else! I think I will have to try this.


anya said...

Dear Tiina, thank you! :) Sautee-ing walnuts, as opposed to roasting them, was absolutely new for me too. But really, beets, prunes and walnuts are just good together. :) Don't be shy on salt, though!

toni said...

First of all, I love the photo of the cat's shadow!

Now, as for the salad... I would never have considered putting these ingredients together -- beets and prunes? But if say that it was good, I'm more than willing to give it a try. After all, I love beets, too!

Anna said...

Mmm, sounds yummy and complex. I don't tend to like beets, but I like the sound of them with roasted walnuts and garlic! (What's not good with roasted walnuts and garlic?) Also, I met Mark Bittman not too long ago when he was on book tour. What a cool man, he lost 30 pounds by cutting out all processed foods. woah.

Astra Libris said...

Your day sounds positively blissful, Alex sounds delightful, your beets sound beyond scrumptious, and I love love your photo of the cat's shadow!! Anya, you are too wonderful! You post brought such sunshine into my day!

AmsterS@m said...

It's really fun to read about your life :)

Have a nice weekend!



anya said...

Toni - thanks! Prunes and beets are strange bedfellows! :)

Anna - wow, did Mark Bittman ever have extra weight? It's difficult to imagine - he looks so fit in his videos. Anyway, if he were, then it proves once again that processed foods are evil.

Astrid - thank you dearly, your comment made my day!

S@m - welcome to my blog! I'm thrilled to know you like it. :)