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March 26, 2015

Carrot-feta salad with tahini dressing

I'm trying to impress people here, Lisa. You don't win friends with salad.
~ Homer J. Simpson, The Simpsons: Lisa the Vegetarian

As an opportunistic omnivore, I eat almost everything. Joyfully, most foods turn out to be tasty, if not downright delicious. The list of foods I have disliked and would prefer to avoid in the future is mercifully short - sea cucumbers (childhood phobia plus a texture bias), boiled onions and boiled carrots. That last one seems particularly sad - the soggy texture, the washed-out color, the watered-down flavor. Bright orange, sweet and crunchy are the defining characteristics of carrots; it seems unjust to deprive them of their identity.

Thankfully, this salad both highlights and takes advantage of the carrot's natural talents. Bright in both color and flavor, it brings together the sweetness of carrots, the grassy sharpness of parsley and the briny tang of feta. The result is both good and good for you, full of vitamins and antioxidants, and studded with luscious cheese.

Serve with olives and some charcuterie as an appetizer, as a light side with meat or fish (perhaps omitting the feta), or by itself as a refreshing lunch. However it is presented, everybody goes for second helpings.

This salad is indebted1 to Deb Perelman's carrot salad with tahini and crisped chickpeas. After trying Deb's recipe, I found that I absolutely loved the zesty tahini dressing and the way it contrasted with the carrots. The roasted chickpeas and pistachios were not not my favorite elements - the carrots had enough texture on their own, and I found myself wandering in a different direction, a salty softness in place of spicy crunch.

Carrot-feta salad with tahini dressing
Serves 4-6
Do make more than you need. This dish is seriously addictive, and keeps very well in the refrigerator for several days.
  • 1.5 pounds carrots (4-7, depending on size)
  • 1 large bunch of parsley (2-3 cups loosely packed leaves)
  • ½ pound feta cheese
  • 2-3 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice (1 medium lemon)
  • 2 Tablespoons tahini
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1-2 Tablespoons water (bottled or boiled)
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • freshly ground black pepper

Peel and grate the carrots on the the large holes of the grater. A food processor shreds the carrots too finely to maintain the crunch; a little additional effort here makes a big difference.

Wash the parsley, shake off as much water as possible (or use a salad spinner) and remove the leaves from the stems. Roughly chop the leaves - they should be small enough to blend easily with the carrots but large enough to still have some texture.

Cube the feta cheese. If you are feeling particular, 1cm (¼ inch) cubes.

Prepare the dressing directly in a large bowl. Peel and finely mince the garlic. Add olive oil, salt and pepper.

Stir the tahini well before using. Tahini will separate over time, with solids sinking to the bottom and a layer of sesame oil forming on the top. Use a clean, dry utensil - tahini keeps practically forever, as long as it is not contaminated.

Roll the lemon on the counter before cutting and juicing to break the membranes and release more juice. If using a lemon directly from the refrigerator, microwave for 30 seconds before cutting. Juice the lemon into the the bowl (use a strainer or your fingers to catch the pips) and mix the dressing. Tahini will emulsify the dressing; add 1-2 Tablespoons of water to thin it out - it should pour easily.

Add the grated carrots, chopped parsley and cubed feta to the dressing; mix to combine. Taste and adjust the seasonings if necessary.

Serve sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds for an added crunch.

A quick ingredient note - the olive oil used in the dressing was a lovely gift from a thoughtful friend. The oil came from friends of the friend - a Greek couple who recently started a small business exporting artisanal olive oil (from a monastery, no less!). This oil is absolutely wonderful. It has a bright, grassy flavor without being bitter or overpowering. It is robust enough to stand up to sharp flavors like garlic and feta, and mild enough to dress delicate greens. I have been lucky enough to taste olive oils from some amazing producers all over the Mediterranean, and this is easily in my top three. I really recommend visiting Maryó's webstite and purchasing a bottle or two2.
1Ha! A terrible, unintentional pun.
2Sadly, this recommendation is not sponsored with additional bottles.

March 23, 2015

Borsch 2.0

Progress doesn’t come from early risers - progress is made by lazy men looking for easier ways to do things.

~ Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

mise en place
/miz ɑ̃ plas/
  1. (In a restaurant kitchen) the preparation of equipment and food before service begins.

Borsch is a hymn to the glory of beets. And beets are glorious. Anyone who judges beets based solely on a single out-of-the-can experience is perpetrating a great injustice, both against the beets and against their own person. An incredibly versatile vegetable, beets can be eaten in raw, roasted, boiled, and even liquid (ginger-apple-beet juice!) form. Beets, both roots and greens, are high in antioxidants and vitamins. More importantly, properly cooked beets are very, very tasty.

I grew up eating beets, and they are one of my favorite vegetables, for the emotional comfort as much as for their flavor. And when beet nostalgia melds with the intrinsic comfort of soup, the result will help weather any winter. Enter borshch/borsch/borscht1, the traditional Eastern European beet soup.

This is my interpretation of my grandmother's vegetarian recipe, a lighter version of the beef-based borsch. The big departure from the original is the replacement of the traditional cabbage with bitter lettuce, an idea gratefully borrowed from Chinese cooking. Beets, carrots and tomato paste are all quite sweet to my palate, and the neutral flavors of potatoes and cabbage do not offset this sweetness. Lettuce provides the necessary contrast, and makes the soup less heavy, though no less hearty. Using lettuce has the added benefit of not having to shred cabbage.

Although the preparation process is simple and does not take a lot of time, it does require that undivided attention is paid for five minutes. Nothing ruins a dish so fast as burning the onions. The classical French cooking practice of mise en place, while seemingly more time-consuming, actually makes the entire process more efficient. Roughly translated, mise en place means "putting in place", or having everything ready before cooking actually starts. As tempting as it is to grate the carrots while the onions are browning, or peel and chop the potatoes while the tomato paste is cooking down, this is usually a false economy - it is best to get everything ready before you begin. There are culinary benefits as well - preparing the potatoes ahead of time removes some of the starch; giving the lettuce a cool bath revives wilting leaves.

Borsch 2.0
The recipe invites experimentation - use more or less of any vegetable as you prefer. Potatoes can be replaced with celery root, parsnips or both. And of course, lettuce can be swapped for green cabbage. Shred the cabbage and add to the soup together with the carrot mixture.

Serves 4-6
  • 2-3 medium / 5-6 small beets
  • 1 large carrot
  • 1 medium onion
  • 2 medium potatoes
  • 1-2 heads bitter lettuce, such as Little Gem or Romaine
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic
  • 2-3 Tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 5-7 peppercorns
  • 3-5 sprigs fresh parsley or thyme
  • Salt
  • 1-2 Tablespoons oil (olive, rice bran, canola, grapeseed)
N.B. If using frozen2 tomato paste, no need to defrost before using.

Peel and rinse the root vegetables. Chop the onions, grate the carrot on the large holes of the grater and lightly crush the garlic cloves.

If feeling lazy, grate the beets. If feeling fancy, cut the beets into nice wedges. For small beets, simply cut in half and then each half into wedges (for larger beets, first slice each half into thirds).

Wash the lettuce and remove outer leaves if they are yellow or bruised. Quarter the lettuce and chop each quarter into bite-sized pieces; put in the refrigerator or a bowl of cold water.

Cut the potatoes into cubes or medium chunks. Place cut potatoes in a bowl of cool water to prevent browning from oxidation.

Bring 4 Cups of water to a boil in a large pot. Add 2 teaspoons salt, peppercorns, parsley/thyme and beets. Lower heat to a simmer.

Heat the oil in a (non-stick) pan over medium heat. Add onions and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions become translucent and start browning around the edges.
Push the onions to the perimeter of the pan, and add the tomato paste. Cook the paste in the center until it becomes fragrant, a minute or so. Frying the paste in oil helps remove the tinned flavor. Stir the onions into the paste. Cook, stirring to prevent burning, for another 3 minutes, until the mixture thickens.

Add the carrots and garlic cloves, a generous pinch of salt and mix to combine. If stirring is difficult because the onion mixture is too thick, add ¼ Cup of cooking liquid from the beets. Lower the heat and cook the carrots, stirring occasionally, for another 5 minutes.

Add the carrot-onion-paste mixture to the beets. Continue to simmer for another 25 minutes for beet wedges, or 20 minutes for grated beets.

Taste the broth for salt, and add more if necessary. Add the drained potatoes to the pot (if the soup has thickened too much, add some boiling water so the potatoes are submerged). Cook until the beets and potatoes are just tender. Start testing after 20 minutes; cooking time will depend on the size of vegetables.

Once the beets are tender, stir in the drained lettuce and increase the heat. When the soup comes back to simmer, cover the pot and turn off the heat, but leave the pot on the stove. The lettuce will wilt and mellow from the residual heat without falling apart. Borsch is always better after a day or two in the refrigerator. If you are feeling impatient, let the pot rest for 15-20 minutes before eating.

Beets like acid; if desired, round out the borsch with just a splash of balsamic or white vinegar.

Serve the borsch hot with a dollop of crème fraîche or sour cream, and some chopped dill. For a really traditional accompaniment, cut a clove of raw garlic in half and rub the cut side on the crust of some heavy dark bread. The optional vodka shot must be served straight from the freezer and have the consistency of syrup.

1 As the Russian spelling does not contain a t and English speakers are not informed that it is silent in the transliteration, this has become quite a pet peeve. There is no t in borsch!
2Instead of storing an open can of tomato paste in the refrigerator, where it will languish forgotten and eventually get converted into penicillin, empty the paste into a Ziploc bag, flatten in an even layer, and freeze. When needed, simply break off the required amount.