Beet Hummus

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I have a spirit vegetable; one for each season.

 

In the late summer, it is the blackest purple eggplant, with streaks of white for good measure, like the Prosperosa. Into late autumn and winter, I fall for winter squash, and I sway between the dramatic orange Red Kuri in those early months of the season, and the thin-skinned Delicata as the new year and deep winter approaches. As the soil warms in the early spring and makes for dramatic growth day by day, the sweet, tart, crimson rhubarb calls my name.

 

And in the heart of summer, when all the likely candidates wave their yellow-flowered flags before popping fruit upon fruit endlessly, I turn to the other side of the garden and pull the earthy beets from the ground, their soil-covered skins disguising the dramatic color within.

 

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I’ve mentioned this before, but I tend to identify with the harder-to-know vegetables, the ones that sometimes fall victim to knowing only one dish in most kitchens, or worse yet, never appearing. Like me, these vegetables might take a bit more work to understand, as what you see is certainly not what you get; they’re not the kind to be plucked from the vine and gobbled down there in the garden, warm and juicy from the sun.

 

I don’t revel in the hard-to-approach bits of my personality, nor do I love how I can remain so completely reserved to even my nearest and dearest friends. I don’t love how my first response to the teasing I get, for fun, is one of irritation and sharp-eyed fight-backing, before I slide my sassafras tongue back in, let out a smile, and just go with it.

 

I bet my spirit vegetables–with their thorny stems, prickly, then poisonous leaves, and dirty bottoms–feel the same way.

 

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Have you ever pulled a stalk of rhubarb from the ground, knocked that highly oxalated leaf off the stem, and sunk your teeth into the celery-like tartness, pure and raw and unadorned from sugar and strawberries? It is pungent; startling even. Have you ever greedily gobbled plain sweet roasted beets straight from their foil oven-packet before realizing you now don’t have enough for the recipe? Or done the exact same with a winter squash, thinking to yourself, this is the most magical candy on all the earth, as you’ve done so?

 

I don’t often share about my job, but one of my favorite things about it is wandering the garden with my high school students, giddily discovering a new vegetable is ready for harvest, like the spring’s first asparagus, cutting the new shoots from the ground, shoving stalks at them, and saying, try it. And there, with dirt on their hands, mud on their shoes, and weary eyes, they do and they discover a flavor they’ve never experienced before. It is one that you cannot get from a grocery store because it’s only there in that plant a short while before shipping and sitting on a shelf and waiting to be cooked in a fridge drains those flavors away. The students’ initial reluctance for something so green and unlike the usual packaged meals paves way for simple responses like, I’ve never tried asparagus before. I like it! Followed by their sitting in the log circle gnawing down an entire unruly, late-harvested, two-foot stalk.

 

Since it is summer, I spend a good majority of my days outside in one garden or another, whether at work with students, or in my home garden. I tend to eat even more vegetables than usual to keep up with the harvest, and I end most days tired, hot, and ready for a shower the moment I walk in the door. I’ve taken, too, to eating random vegetable-y things at most meals, even rounding out the usual morning porridge with a spontaneous need for beet hummus “spooned” upon whole cucumbers. I harvested six last night and there are at least 10 more coming in the next couple of days–and when cucumbers are as snappy, crisp, and fresh as these ones, they are perfect vegetable dippers for beet hummus.

 

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Though beets can be harvested nearly year-round in these parts, beet hummus is what I love to make in this season to convert the earthy-crimson-root-weary to my summer spirit vegetable. Try it. You’ll like it.

 

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Beet Hummus, adapted from Ard Bia Cook Book
Makes about 1 cup or so. Double the recipe if you’re likely to gobble it up in one sitting.

4-5 beets (about half a pound)
1 garlic clove, peeled
1 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1 1/2 tsp. pomegranate molasses
1 Tbs. tahini
2 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp. sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

  • Scrub the beets and remove their tops and bottoms. Pile them into a large sheet of foil and fold until completely covered. Roast in a preheated oven at 400 degrees F until soft all the way through, about 40-50 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly. If they’re free from chemicals and grown in healthy soil, I don’t bother removing the peels.
  • In a food processor, puree the beets and remaining ingredients until they become a smooth paste. Add more lemon juice, salt, or pepper to taste.
  • Serve every which way atop the season’s fresh vegetables, or simply eat it straight from the spoon.
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Pomegranate, Kale + Pancetta Spaghetti

 
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“Go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question of whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you.”
                                                            – Letters to a Young Poet, Rainier Maria Rilke 
 
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The truth is, the beginning is blurry. When I squint back into the depths of my childhood, my thoughts were not long off of food. I would take cookbooks to bed at night, squinting into the flashlight-shadows, long after my sister had demanded I put our shared, bunk-bedded room into darkness. Looking back at the shy, quiet, anxious little person that I was then, I recall only that I felt most at home in the kitchen. I still do.
 
It began then, I think, with playdough. My mom mixed up homemade playdough. I remember seeing the recipe on a worn index card in her gray metal recipe box, a box that to this day holds her most cherished recipes. There were two recipes in that box that were beyond intriguing to my child-mind:  elephant ears and playdough. The first was something that I had never considered could be made outside of a hot, steamy, trailer-kitchen at the county fair. The second was the only non-food recipe that I’ve ever known my mom to have on hand. I must have asked her, and she mixed up a batch for us. I don’t remember much after beyond the whirl of the mixer blades, and the fact that my mom brought me into the kitchen, handed me the measuring cups, and taught me fractions.
 
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From that moment when I learned to turn on the mixer, to scoop flour into the measuring cups, to follow recipe instructions, up to now, nearly 20 years later, I’ve been most at home in any place surrounded by food. It fascinates me in its cultural symbolism, use as a socio-economic tool and weapon, as a draw to family gatherings and entire holiday celebrations, and, most importantly, in its most simple form as basic sustenance for the hunger in all of us.
 
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In those simple childhood days, those most-remembered foods symbolize the dearly loved and oft-hated. My favorites from that gray box included our neighbor’s recipe for honey-cinnamon swirl rolls,  my mom’s homemade bread, and leftover-oatmeal cookies with just the right amount of spice. There was my favorite breakfast, dad’s “stinkbug porridge”, which was a simple concoction of raisins and brown sugar. And then the fresh milk from our cow, Betsy, with flakes of cream floating amongst my morning cheerios. I had to plug my nose to get the milk down after staying an extra hour at the table gathering the resolve to drink it. Now looking back, I realize what a precious experience to have been raised in a place where our milk came right from the cow.
 
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In this new year and new beginning of sorts, I am reminded of how I am drawn to food as a means of communication and connection. I am reminded of the beginning, how I learned in the kitchen with my mom and the whirl of the blender blades that are still in her cupboard today. I am reminded that food is special, and that when I go into myself, as Rilke suggests, the only answer I come back with is, yes, I must create.
 
Though I can no longer enjoy thick slices of my mom’s bread, or partake in flecks of cream floating in the cow’s milk, I hold in my heart and in my cooking a focus on good, simple, nourishing food, in whatever way it can be most enjoyed. I am looking forward to this year to come, and the creations it will bring.
 
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Pomegranate, Kale & Pancetta Spaghetti, serves 3
Pomegranates have been often in our kitchen this winter, more than ever before. This creation happened spontaneously and naturally, out of ingredients we had on hand one evening. It will become a favorite, I’m thinking, in the many wintery days ahead. If you have not used pomegranate molasses, it can be found at a well-stocked grocery store, online, or you can make your own by reducing pomegranate juice in a sauce pan. Don’t leave it out in this dish; it will be missed.
 
6 oz. brown-rice spaghetti (or any type that you prefer)
4 oz. pancetta, diced
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large bunch kale, chopped (I prefer Tuscan but any type will do)
1/4 tsp. salt
3 Tbs. pomegranate molasses
1 Tbs. orange zest
seeds from one pomegranate
salt and black pepper, to taste
  • Cook the spaghetti according to package directions in a large pot. 
  • While pasta is cooking, heat a large sauté pan to medium-high. Add pancetta and cook until almost done. Add the onion and continue to sauté until transculent, about 8 minutes.
  • When onion is very soft, add kale and cook down until wilted, about 5 minutes.
  • Drain spaghetti when cooked, and mix it into the kale and onion mixture.  
  • Add salt, orange zest, and pomegranate molasses. Toss the pomegranate seeds on top and stir them in gently. Add additional salt and pepper to taste, and serve.