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Even though borscht was the first way I ever ate beets (at a pretty awesome tasting dinner at evoo a few years back), I hadn’t made it until recently. I have no real excuse for this other than having no personal vision of borscht that would allow me to sort through the hundreds of different recipes available and select one. But this winter, that problem was solved for me by necessity: given an overwhelming beet situation, I just picked one on the basis of “having all of the basic ingredients in my kitchen at the time.” Very scientific.

mmm, borscht

The best thing about the soup below is that it is both fast and easy, rare qualities in a soup. It took me a bit over an hour, start to finish, including peeling and chopping the vegetables. You can also serve it pureed (as shown above) or not, depending on your preference. And for something made with vegetables in season at the dead of winter, it is surprisingly light and fresh, more like a vegetable soup than like a stew. Combined with its brilliant hue, it makes for a nice break from the beige diet of late winter.

Borscht
Wildly adapated from the Kitchn

3 T. olive oil
1 large or 2 small onions
5 cloves of garlic or about 2 t. jarred crushed garlic
1 t. dried dill
4 carrots
2 potatoes (about 1 lb; use starchy potatoes if you have them)
1 bunch beets (about 1 1/2 lbs)
2 t. kosher salt
1/2 t. lemon juice (from half a lemon or a jar)
1 T. brown sugar
1/4 c. apple cider vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper

Peel and dice the onions. Then do the same to the carrots, beets, and potatoes, aiming for half-inch chunks.

borscht veggies

Heat the olive oil in a big stock pot over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until softened and translucent, about five minutes. Add the garlic and dill, stir, and cook for another minute or two until fragrant. Then add the carrots, beets, and potatoes. Cook for another five minutes, until the vegetables start to lose their crispness.

Add the salt, lemon juice, sugar, and vinegar, plus four cups of water. Mix well, and turn up the heat so it boils. Then reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook until all the vegetables are tender. Start checking for this around 30 minutes, but it could take up to 50 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces.

borscht - cooking

If you want to serve it as a chunky soup, you can go ahead serve it as soon as it is cooked. If you want to puree, you’ll probably need to remove it from the heat and wait for it to stop boiling, then do it in batches in your blender or food processor. (It’s a bit much for an immersion blender, I’m afraid.) If you find the texture too thick after pureeing, you can add more water.

Many people like this with sour cream, although I preferred it plain. Makes about six cups.

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“Foods I didn’t discover until adulthood” are getting to be a theme on this blog, which I’m pretty sure is because there are so darn many of them. As a young child, I only ate three things we could reliably get outside of the house: hamburgers (well-done only, no pink), pepperoni pizza, and spaghetti with red sauce. Add a father with equally, er, selective tastes and you get a childhood with fairly limited cuisine.

potatoes and cauliflower

So that’s how it happened that I didn’t discover Indian food until I went to live in England for a year when I was twenty. (Other discoveries of the same year: sushi, falafel, and portobello mushrooms. Also wine and kir. It was a good time.) And then, for years, I ate amazing Indian food in restaurants, but utterly failed to recreate anything like it at home.

Fortunately for all of us, that era is past. The secret, it turns out, is really great garam masala. I buy it from an Indian grocery, but you can also get it online, and it is the difference between “random bunch of Indian-inspired spices” and “YUM.” This recipe for potatoes and cauliflower (aloo gobi) is a little less saucy than most restaurant preparations, but every bit as tasty.

Indian-style Cauliflower and Potatoes
Adapted from Madhur Jeffrey’s World Vegetarian

Canola oil for the pan
About 1 pound of potatoes
About 1 1/2 pounds of cauliflower
1 onion
About an inch-long piece of fresh ginger
1/4 t. turmeric
1 t. ground cumin
1 t. ground coriander
1/2 t. garam masala
1/2 t. salt plus more to taste
black pepper to taste

First, wash the potatoes. Chop into one-inch chunks. Line a plate with paper towels and set it to the side.

Heat a large skillet with a lid* with a about three tablespoons of oil and the same amount of water over medium heat. When it is hot, add the potatoes and cover. Cook until the potatoes are cooked through, 7-12 minutes.

While this is happening, chop off the stem of the cauliflower, and then chop it into florets, no more than about an inch and a half across. It’s okay to cut large natural florets into smaller pieces with a knife.

Then remove the lid from the potatoes and allow the water to boil off. (You can check to make sure they’re done by poking with a fork or toothpick; it should easily pierce all the way through.)

Fry the potatoes until they are golden brown, stirring only occasionally, 3-5 minutes per side, adding oil as needed to prevent sticking. When the potatoes are done, use a spatula or slotted spoon to remove them to the prepared plate, and line a second plate with paper towels.

Add the cauliflower to the remaining oil (add more if needed!) and cook, stirring only occasionally, until it is soft and caramelized on the edges, 5-8 minutes. While it is cooking, peel and chop the onion.

cooked cauliflower

When the cauliflower is done, use the spatula to turn it out onto the second plate. Check to make sure there are a couple of tablespoons of oil in the bottom of the pan, then add the onion. As it softens, grate the ginger.**

When the onion is soft, add the ginger to the skillet and cook half a minute, until it is fragrant. Add the other spices and stir to coat everything, then add the potatoes and cauliflower back in, along with three tablespoons of water. Stir everything to coat, then turn the heat down, cover, and allow to cook for about five minutes.

This recipe makes about four servings and reheats beautifully. It also doubles well, but the vegetables really get some of their flavor from their contact with the pan during the initial frying (which caramelizes them to that lovely golden brown), so you may need to do that step in batches.

*The lid doesn’t have to belong to the pot, just to cover it or the contents reasonably well.

**I love a microplane grater for this; my favorite is a big flat one like this.

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The most brilliant quality of these sweet potato falafel is their taste, of course, but the second most brilliant quality is that they’re the kind of food that seems fancy but is actually really easy to make.

sweet potato falafel.jpg

I also love the savoriness of this dish. Too often sweet potatoes get relegated to glazed preparations, but they play well with these Indian-inspired spices too.

Sweet potato falafel
Adapted from Leon: Ingredients and Recipes by Allegra McEvedy, via 101 Cookbooks

2 medium sweet potatoes (about 1 1/2 lbs, but don’t be fussy)*
2 t. pressed or crushed garlic
3 t. mild curry powder**
2 t. garam masala***
scant cup chickpea flour (also called “gram flour”)****
salt and pepper
olive oil to grease the tray

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Wash the sweet potatoes thoroughly (I like to use a dish brush with no soap) and pierce the skin several times with a fork or paring knife. Roast the sweet potatoes whole — you can put them directly on the rack — until tender. This will take at least 45 minutes, but could be up to a bit over an hour; bamboo skewers made for kebabs are great for testing to make sure the center is cooked through.

Remove the potatoes from the oven, chop them in half, and let them cool until you can handle them. Turn the oven temperature down to 400 F while you wait. When you can pick them up comfortably, squish the flesh out of the potatoes (I find squeezing them like toothpaste tubes easiest) and into a bowl. The flesh closest to the peel won’t come out, which is fine: it’s usually more fibrous anyway. Alternately, you can scoop them out with a spoon, but be careful: the skin is fragile.

sweet potatoes for falfel.jpg

Add the garlic, curry powder, garam masala, chickpea flour, and salt and pepper to the potatoes and mash until there are no more big chunks of potato. Taste it — if you’re into spicy, you might want to add more curry or garam masala. The mixture should be moist but not very sticky; if it’s too sticky (sweet potato water content can vary a lot), add an extra tablespoon of chickpea flour.

Lightly oil a cookie sheet with olive oil. You can use spoons or a scoop to shape the falafel, just plunk them down in mounds (still completely tasty!), or scoop bits up with your fingers and roll them between your palms to make them more uniform in appearance, as I did here.

sweet potato falafel on sheet.jpg

Bake for 15-20 minutes, until the bottom turns golden brown and the top no longer looks wet.

Makes 18-20 falafel, which is enough for three servings as a main dish or four to six as a side; it doubles well!

*There is a lot of confusion in the U.S. about sweet potatoes versus yams. In this case, you want something with orange flesh, no matter what it’s sold as!

**I use the Sweet Curry Powder from Penzeys because I want flavor more than heat. Curry powder is one place where it’s worth not just buying the grocery store version, but also one highly subject to personal taste!

***The best garam masala comes from an Indian grocery store; if you don’t have one in your area, you can buy from one online or — of course — from Amazon.

****This is easy to find at Indian groceries and at some regular grocery stores. Health food stores are another reasonable bet, as it’s sometimes marketed to gluten-free folks (Bob’s Red Mill makes it). Failing all else, again with Amazon.

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Mashed potatoes evoke strong feelings: they must have chunks, or have no chunks. A ricer/food processor/drop of water must never touch them. You must you this or that kind of dairy.

caramelized onion mashers.jpg

One way around the whole controversy is to make a variation on the traditional dish. Everyone will be so suprised that you put nutmeg in that they’ll be quiet about your preferred mashing tool. Or at least, we can hope.

Mashed potatoes with caramelized onions, brandy, and nutmeg
Adapted from a recipe in the Boston Globe, November 22, 2009

1 T. canola oil
6 T. unsalted butter
2 lbs. onions (about 4)
Salt and pepper
1/2 c. brandy or cognac
1/2 t. nutmeg
2 1/2 lbs. potatoes (5 to 7 potatoes)*
1/2 c. half-and-half

First, the onions. Peel and dice them, then heat a skillet with one tablespoon of butter plus the canola oil over medium heat. Add a pinch of salt and the onions and cook until they soften, then turn the heat down to medium-low. The slower you can stand to cook these, the sweeter they will be, and as long as the butter is bubbling and popping, they’re cooking. You want to cook them to a medium brown color, which can take anywhere from 10 minutes on medium to close to an hour on a lower heat. All of the ways produce onions mellow enough to use, but the sweetness of really caramelizing them slowly is worth the wait.

When the onions are getting close to done, peel the potatoes and chop them into roughly one-inch cubes. It’s best to do this one potato at a time, peeling and chopping and then putting the pieces in a bowl of cold water to prevent discoloration.

Set up a pot with a steamer basket big enough to hold your potatoes. Add enough water to come close to the bottom of the steamer, and put it on to boil.

Meanwhile, rinse the potatoes in a couple of changes of cold water; this helps remove excess starch. You can hold the potatoes in a bowl of very cold water (I sometimes even add ice) until the water boils. Once it does, put the potatoes into the steamer basket and set a timer for ten minutes.

steaming potatoes.jpg

When the onions are caramelized, stir in the brandy and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring constantly, until it no longer smells like evaporating alcohol. Stir in the nutmeg and remove from the heat.

When your timer goes off, carefully pull the steamer out of the pot and rinse the potatoes under cold running water (more starch removal!), then put them back in to steam until they’re tender all the way through. This will take 10-15 more minutes, depending on the exact size of your chunks.

While that’s happening, warm up the half-and-half and melt the remaining five tablespoons of butter.

ready to mash.jpg

When the potatoes are done, you need to start squishing them. The easiest way to do this is with a potato ricer, which is like a garlic press on steroids, but of course, mashing with a potato masher or even forks will do the job. Or you can fake a ricer by pushing the potatoes through a medium-mesh sieve with the back of a spoon.

Once they’re mostly squished, add the melted butter. (You’re going to want to mix gently if you used a ricer; if you’re mashing by hand, keep at it.) Add the half-and-half a bit at a time, until you’ve attained nearly your preferred level of squishiness. Then mix in the onions, which will make them just a bit squishier, salt and pepper to taste, and serve immediately.

*I am a huge fan of Yukon Gold, which is a medium-starch variety, for mashing. If you use a starchier potato like russets, you may need more half-and-half. Stay away from waxy potatoes (like the little red-skinned ones) for mashing; they’re better for salads.

**You can caramelize extra onions and freeze them, and then you’ll have them ready any time you want them! When you defrost, they’ll be pretty soft and mushy, but that’s the nature of caramelized onions anyway, so it’s fine for nearly all uses. Just take your extras out before you add the brandy!

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Alice Waters is pretty my much idol. She was into local food before it was a thing people were into, and now that she’s got that sorted, she’s moving on to saving school lunch.

carrot soup.jpg

So even though this carrot soup recipe looks ridiculously simple, you’re going to want to take her word for it that it’s a good idea.

Alice Waters’ carrot soup
Adapted from Soup’s On! via Serious Eats

2 T. unsalted butter
1 onion
1/2 sprig thyme or about 1/4 t. dried
1 1/4 lbs. carrots (about 6)
1 t. salt
3 c. stock (Alice uses chicken; I used Imagine brand no-chicken)

First, peel the carrots and then slice them thinly. If you’re me, this means using a food processor with a slicing blade or a mandoline, but those with better knife skills should not hesitate to use them. If your carrots are fat, you might want to halve them before slicing.

Then dice the onion.

Put the butter in a pot over medium-low heat. When it melts, add the onion and thyme, and cook slowly until the onion is quite soft, about ten minutes.

onions and thyme

Add the carrots and cook for five more minutes, stirring once in a while.

add carrots

(Dubious stove lighting, you are becoming a bigger and bigger problem for me!)

Add in the stock and turn the heat to high. Bring the whole thing to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer and cook until the carrots are tender. How long this takes depends on your slicing, but half an hour is a good first time to check.

I ate this straight up; Alice recommends a sprinkle of chives, and there’s a reason she’s Alice Waters.

Serves about four

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Normally I’m opposed to adding anything sweet to orange vegetables. They start off pretty sweet as is, so savory preparations usually seem like the way to go. Also, I somehow managed to grow up sheltered from the travesty that is sweet potato-marshmallow casserole. But I digress.

maple-glazed sweet potatoes.jpg

My point is that this recipe, despite the fact that it involves maple syrup, is not too sweet. The syrup’s taste is nearly undetectable, but the sugar helps the potatoes caramelize to a nice crust. As a bonus, these are cooked at a high temperature, which means they don’t need hours in the oven to cook through.

Maple-glazed sweet potatoes
Adapted from Vegetable Love by Barbara Kafka, via Serious Eats

3 medium sweet potatoes
3 T. melted butter
3 T. maple syrup
Salt

Preheat your oven to 500 F. (That is not a typo.)

Peel the sweet potatoes and chop them in half the long way. Slice again the long way, and then cut any really tall pieces in half (still the long way!) to make shapes like fries. You can cut them in half to make matchsticks if they’re unreasonably long. (You can also use other shapes, of course, but you may need to adjust the cooking time; keeping the size of chunks uniform is the part that’s key here.) If it takes you as long as it took me to do all that chopping, keep the chopped pieces in a bowl of cold water so they don’t turn funky colors.

Melt the butter in the microwave or a saucepan.

Spread the pieces out in a single layer on a baking pan. If you aren’t morally opposed to non-stick cookware, it will make your cleanup a lot easier in this case. I used two 9×13 pans for my potatoes, mostly because I made long sticks. Pour the butter over the potatoes and stir to coat, then stick them in the oven for ten minutes.

After ten minutes, the potatoes should be mostly cooked. Take them out of the oven and carefully pour the maple syrup over them, avoiding opportunities to burn yourself on the pan. (Do as I say, not as I do.) Use a spatula to turn and stir them, distributing the syrup as evenly as reasonably possible.

maple sweet potatoes - baking.jpg

Return them to the oven for another five or seven minutes, until they’re getting a bit crispy and are tender all the way through. (You can check this last with a toothpick.) Transfer to a serving dish and salt to taste.

Makes 2-3 servings; doubles easily

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One of my brilliant friends came up with an idea she calls “the roasted duck test.” The gist of the roasted duck test is to hold up any fancy preparation of an ingredient to a classic, simple, and really delicious one. I find it to be a good check on messing with a good thing.

green beans.jpg

This recipe for green beans would definitely pass whatever the green bean equivalent of the roasted duck test is, though. It only requires a couple of extra steps, and it’s really tasty. I was completely afraid it would taste too much like dill, but it was a baseless fear. The sweetness of the leeks cuts the dill perfectly, and they’re well worth washing the leeks to make.

Dilly Green Beans
Adapted from 101 Cookbooks

4 leeks
1/3 c. fresh dill, well chopped
1 lb. green beans
splash of extra-virgin olive oil (a couple of tablespoons)
big pinch of salt (use sea salt if you have it)

First, you need to prepare the leeks. You want to cut off the hairy end as close as you can to where the roots start, and chop off the top where it becomes more green than white. (Don’t worry; precision is not important here.)

Cut the part of the leek that’s left into quarters lengthwise, so you have four long, triangular pieces per leek. Dump these into a bowl of water and swish around, getting as much water between layers as you can manage.

Then pull them out and dice them. (Here’s a good hint: you can wash and chop two bunches at once and then freeze the extra for next time.)

Snap both ends off of the green beans. I usually do this with my fingers; a knife works too, if you don’t mind sacrificing a little bean in the name of efficiency. Rinse them in a colander under running water.

Put a big skillet over medium-high heat (this is a good time for one with a fairly thick bottom if you have it) and add the splash of oil and pinch of salt. Add the leeks and stir to coat. Keep cooking until the leeks start to get golden and crisped at the edges. You’ll want to stir frequently throughout this process to keep them from burning; it’ll take something in the vicinity of ten minutes.

Add the green beans and dill and stir to mix. Throw in a splash of water (two or three tablespoons; a little less if your lid really fits well on your skillet) and cover the pan for a couple of minutes to steam the beans. I like mine cooked for two or three minutes, at which point they’re still very crispy, but if you prefer yours more on the cooked-through side, you may want to leave them for almost twice as long. If your beans are fresh, they’ll turn bright green when they’re just barely cooked, but your mouth is your most reliable doneness gauge in this case. (If you’re making enough for leftovers, either err on the side of undercooking or remove the portion you’re not planning to eat that night a minute or two early. That way they won’t get overcooked when you reheat them.)

When they’re cooked, remove the lid and allow any remaining water to boil off before transferring to a serving dish.

Serves 4-6 as a side

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