Sunday, January 24, 2010

Beats and Beets, In Two Parts

ONE  All Songs Lead Home, and to the Kitchen

In Baton Rouge, my husband (hereon, known as Chris) and I were in the habit cooking dinner together on Saturday nights. While we cooked, we listened to Nick Spitzer’s show American Routes that is broadcast out of the University of New Orleans.

Last night I decided to listen to Twine Time, a KUT show hosted by Paul Ray. It’s a decent substitute for American Routes, but I wasn’t really feeling it. Can everyone recall being 18, 19, 20 years young and captivated by exotic knowledge spewing out of a professor’s mouth? (Thank you Gail Sutherland/Eastern Religion, Gregory Veck/Geography of Africa and Asia, Jill Brody/Cultural Anthropology and Matt Clark/Fiction.)

Present day: enter American Routes. While Twine Time plays some decent rhythm and blues, American Routes is like the music appreciation class I never took in college. Nick Spitzer is DJ/professor, and I am student-harboring-a-crush. The show consistently 1) has a theme, 2) makes musical connections between past and present, 3) surprises me with facts I didn’t know (about song origins, musicians, songwriters, etc.) and 4) exposes me to songs I haven’t before heard.

Twine Time was playing Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” and just as I was wondering if Paul Ray includes that song every week (it wouldn’t be the worst habit), I had a remarkably base insight. It occurred to me that the inter-webs might actually contain a site dedicated to American Routes; Herpreet: Meet Google. Chris has rigged speakers in our kitchen so they hook up to an I-pod, a turntable or a laptop; so out of my computer, I was magically, happily turning off Twine Time and listening to the January 6, 2010 American Routes broadcast, Nick Spitzer smartening me up about Hank Williams while I prepped turnip, beet and kohlrabi salad.

As if Spitzer knew that earlier in the day I had been ruminating about life in LA, he opened his segment on Hank Williams with the song "Pan American" (I have heard your stories about your fast train / But now I'll tell you about one all the southern folks have seen / She's the beauty of the southlands listen to that whistle scream / It's that Pan American on her way to New Or-leans). From there, as a set up to talk about Hank Williams' musical ties to Louisiana, he moved into "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)," a silly little Cajun song that I learned on violin in the 5th grade. Here is Lucinda Williams' version of the song; maybe not the best version, and she is not my favorite, but people know who she is. (Lala - don't let me down with a 30-second sample. Please give the people the entire song.) My favorite line is: Fontenot, Thibideaux, the place is buzzin.
Jambalaya - Lucinda Williams 
*Photo: Pan-American Passenger Train, taken by Otto Perry in 1933; Denver Public Library 

TWO Eat the Earth

Chris dislikes beets for the very reason that I like beets: they taste like dirt. For me, the taste is like childhood. By 7 a.m. my dad has mowed the lawn, while I tried to sleep through the groan of the motor. Now the smell of grass clippings and dirt are wafting in through the microscopic gap between my window and its sill. Doesn't that smell taste good?

I feel determined to make Chris like beets. It is usually a futile endeavor. But last night, we each experienced a little give and take.

Some kitchen tasks, in my mind, are Chris's alone. Every morning, Chris makes coffee. He grinds the beans, makes shots of espresso, asks me if I want hot or cold coffee, and depending on my response (usually hot), he adds hot frothed milk or cold milk and ice and then shakes it in a shaker. The real cream is that he brings the coffee to me in bed. Every morning. This is a piece of love that I never want to stop receiving, and thus, I have absolutely zero interest in how the espresso machine works, simple as it may be.

Likewise, Chris makes a mean steak. In my entire life, I have never cooked a steak. I didn't grow up eating steak, and for a long time, I was not a fan. But several years ago, our Culinary Institute of America-trained, chef-friend Bobby introduced us to hanger steak. Bobby was working at what is now one of my all time favorite restaurants,  Cafe Degas in New Orleans. The hanger steak Chris ordered that day was so flavorful; it was the first time I got that beef could have flavor. This is a rather abstract assertion, but forever before, cow had tasted to me like nothing but a gigantic chunk of deadness. When I tasted that hanger steak, the juices, something like sugary blood and fresh minerals, came alive inside of my mouth.

At the grocery store the other day, I asked the butcher if he had any hanger. I got lucky. The butcher handed it over and announced: Congratulations. You're a winner. There is only one hanger steak per cow. Something else, when Whole Foods does have hanger steaks, they get them off of locally and organically raised, grass-fed cows. So for about $7 a pound, I brought home one quality steak.

That night:
Me: Will you teach me how to cook a steak on Saturday?
Chris: Smirks. Well, I almost don't want to, it's so easy.

This exchange encapsulates the lesson itself, so I will only offer three details: Chris always quickly browns whole, gently smashed garlic cloves (6-10) in a mix of hot olive oil and butter and removes them from the skillet before he cooks the steak. He will also only cook steak in his well-seasoned cast iron skillet. Finally, just before the steak comes out of the skillet, he deglazes with beer or wine, literally "a couple of sips, no more." I am convinced that these techniques are real keys to his consistent success. Now that I know how to cook a steak, I will feign ignorance for the rest of our days together. [Side note: Dear Bobby, I know it drove me crazy when I invited you to dinner and you gave me elaborate pointers while I cooked, but now I welcome your endless knowledge and comments about the best way to prepare a hanger steak.]

The stars of the show last night were the beets, turnips and kohlrabi. I modified a really simple recipe for beet salad that I found at Here is the recipe as I made it:

4-6 small red beets, stems and root ends removed
4 small turnips, stems and root ends removed
3 small purple kohlrabi, stems and root ends removed
1/3 cup chopped walnuts
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 tablespoon honey
Freshly ground black pepper (to taste)
Ground sea salt (to taste)
1/3 cup Maytag blue cheese

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Wrap each beet and turnip individually in foil. Roast until soft, about an hour. While beets and turnips roast, whisk balsamic, honey and oil in a glass/pyrex salad bowl. Toss in the walnuts. When beets and turnips are done, cool slightly. (I plopped them still wrapped into a bowl and stuck the bowl in the refrigerator for about 5 minutes.). While they are cooling, peel kohlrabi and slice into strips or wedges. Toss these into the dressing to keep them from turning brown. Remove beets and turnips from foil and gently rub off skins (they come of fast and easy). Slice into strips or wedges and toss into the dressing. Season with salt and pepper. Dish them up and sprinkle each salad with crumbled blue cheese.

The beets were aromatic; the dirt flavor was mild and evenly balanced with natural sugar in the roots; the no-oil, foil roasting seemed to lift out the sugar. The kohlrabi added a nice crunch, and though, when it was not dressed, I got more of a turnip flavor, mixed in with the dressing and the roots, I picked up more of a mild apple flavor. On the whole, the salad had a buttery, but not heavy aftertaste. If I had to make any other modification, I would toast the walnuts over the stove for about 3 minutes and let them cool before adding them to the dressing. I suspect this would lift out even more of a buttery, nutty flavor.

My weak camera skills don't do justice to the salad (the image is not so crisp). I hope to get better with photos in time, and I'm open to tips in that area as well.

Last night, standing in front of the stove, I remembered my first exposure to Hank Williams. In high school, I had a Cowboy Junkies album. It included a cover of "I'm So Lonesome, I Could Cry." I suppose that I had heard the song before, but hearing this cover and reading the album's liner notes was the first time I became consciously aware of Hank Williams. I think that I searched out and listened to his original. I know that I replayed the Cowboy Junkies' version over and over again.

When I went to the farmers market earlier in the day, I felt a little lonely. Living in a new place, though almost a year and a half has passed, remains an adjustment. You begin to belong without even knowing you belong. When you go back to where you came from, you realize you belong there a little less; this is how you know you belong a little more in your new home. That's not mind blowing, but it's my only food for thought. We subsist on this earth, literally - its plants, its animals, its actual land, and yet sometimes we have a difficult time feeling rooted.


  1. love this blog and your musical links. As someone who spent 20+ years studying music seriously, I am embarrassed to see how little I know. Must check out Hank Williams.

    Phil found some Italian beets that are colored alternately red and white inside. very cool.xxa

  2. The blog looks great! I learned how to play Jambalaya on cello in 5th grade, too!

  3. Amy: Hmm. I wonder if I used Italian beets? Mine had red skins, but they were more of a rose red to cream color inside. I didn't ask the vendor about them - I just bought.

    Glad you're enjoying it. I hope to keep improving.

    Kevin: Ha. Must've been a S. LA standard for strings teachers. Let me know if you have any music recommendations along the way! I am definitely working Frozen Bears into the mix - just don't know when yet.

  4. Chiogga beets, you would know if you used them. I would try to go for smaller or baby beets, as they have a higher sugar content. I preferred them because they had better flavor/contrast when roasted with red wine vinegar.

    The only cooking tip I give anymore is to focus on technique and less on recipes, because it is really about technique ratios anyway. Every recipe you could every need can fit on a single sheet of paper. I guess that applies to life in general though.

  5. So, what I used were chiogga? I suspect they were babies- they were tiny and flavorful.

    Also, I'm interested in technique recommendations too! So suggest away.

  6. You have inspired me to cook beets and turnips. I always shy away from them because I know nothing about them. Thank you!

    I know she's not your favorite but I LOVE Lucinda. LOVE.

  7. Cristin: Yay! You will love them. Go with baby ones if you can, b/c, per Bobby's comment, they're higher in sugar content (And mine from the market were babies). Try out the salad I made - it was so easy.


    Being young also helps with texture. Young beets tend to be creamier, were as older beets can bit a bit more fibrous, but that probably depends upon the beet varietal.

  9. Techniques, My favorite is pilafing. It can be applied to any grain and gives one the option of adding many layers of flavor.