In very short order I can rattle off the names of a few vegetables that will elicit at least a small gag reflex even from the usual die hard vegetable lover... BEETS (Beta Vulgaris), PARSNIPS (Pastinaca sativa), TURNIPS (Brassica rapa) and RUTABAGAS (Brassica napus). As the mercury drops I find myself sniffing down into the earth with a hunger for these steady stores of nourishment. These root vegetables are seen as a homely lot, the ugly stepsisters to summer’s resplendent blessing. I stop briefly to consider this while loading my larder with these unpretentious bulbous beauties. To my mind, these subterranean citizens deserve a little attention and possess a subtle kind of charm. Their skins are rough with wear from the tumble and turn of soil, but they bespeak of an honest relationship with their humble surroundings. And much like an animal ready for hibernation, one can imagine their slow incremental gains in weight and flavor blanketed by the deep blind night.
My unlikely love for the beet came off the heels of my first job at Burger King. Admittedly with some satisfaction I still can recall my self appointed title of Salad Bar Queen. For me this meant impeccably maintaining the refrigerated stainless steel display of vegetable fixings with an eye towards creating appetizing order and beauty. I gravitated towards arranging containers of salad ingredients contrasting color and texture. I kept watchful surveillance on my bar while deftly handing out endless hot trays of hamburger-your-way and fries. Between orders I replenished vanishing slices of cucumber, fished out tired shreds of iceberg and captured rogue peas as they traveled to inappropriate locations. I fluffed up the ornamental kale placed around each crock to give the illusion of mounds of food upon a vast lawn of greenery and I even obsessively wiped up clumsy spills of dressing which threatened to uglify my little paradise. I was a premature food stylist and the vegetal oasis within this fast food joint was my high school pride and joy. Naturally I dipped from the garden of delight, this palette of pleasure when it was time for my work break, composing a salad of stellar heights. Skillfully balanced atop a shallow tan plastic bowl I placed a thin mat of lettuce with a few shreds of purple cabbage and carrot. On top of this- two cool cucumber slices, a small scoop of potato salad and a few magenta rounds of canned beets. I adorned this arrangement with three tomato wedges and finished the pile off with a glad shower of mushroom slivers, a handful of sunflower seeds, a tumble of peas, a scatter of cheese, a few croutons and then a shameless dousing of Ranch dressing. This gravity defying feat widened my vision to include the canned squat root which incidentally left its pink rivulet calling card upon the neighboring potato salad. I was fascinated and a little horrified by the audacity of this vegetable but nevertheless within the tinted glass confines of the local Burger King, at the bottom of my salad bowl, my full fledged allegiance for the beet began.
Still, I understand the scorn many people feel. Canned beets are pretty at best but they are watery and bland forming into an immediate sweet pink slush within the mouth. Fresh, these obstinate knobs are uninviting and hard like a rock. While the color of the flesh can be vibrantly hued from crimson to yellow, their thick outer skin tends to be a muddied down version, dull and cheerless. They are a beastly bunch to be sure, marking territory knowing no bounds whether shirt, cutting board or counter top with tell tale bloody stains. Beets are a risky business and I am immune to the work or the dirt involved with their preparation. They are a labor of love.
Generously one gets two vegetables for the price of one. After purchasing beets, the tops can be immediately chopped off to be consumed that night or the next. They are chard like, a bit bitter and take well to garlic, olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Do be careful to clean the leaves thoroughly. There is usually quite a bit of dirt lurking within the greens and ribbed stems as well. Next, I leave about a ½” of stem above the bulb and slightly trim the tail. Since I try to curtail the mess, I cut the beet as little as possible. Instead encase the entire orbs within foil and allow the oven to do the transformative work. Once cooked, the dark coarse skin easily slips off to reveal a glistening jewel. Beets are diamonds in the rough. Their flavor and color are condensed intensity: slippery sanguine ruby red, scarlet with a faint aftertaste of dirt, the taste of pure pulsating vitality. Eating a beet is taking a juicy bite out of life. It is sweet, shockingly beautiful, vibrant, hard to crack, messy and a bit bitter. Plus it is chock full of fiber, folic acid, anti oxidants and assists to detoxify your liver to boot. To beet or not to beet, should it really be a question? Taking a cue from the color of the leaves that abound, I am moved by the russets, burnt umbers, and yellow tinged reds of autumn. Bone sticking Red Flannel Hash sounds appealing both visually and emotionally. Whether it is called hash, mash, resuscitated leftovers or hodgepodge jumble- this is essentially my way of doing food. First assess the root cellar and inspect the vegetables in question. We are looking for firm, weighty, even skinned subjects. Since this meal is guided completely by personal preference, do include as many roots as possible without causing the gag reflex mentioned earlier. I selected one large sweet potato, three smallish beets and two small-medium yellow finn potatoes. Scrub, remove any blemishes, quasi peel and chop into medium sized pieces. The beets I left larger and didn’t peel until later. Steam everything until not quite tender, keep in mind that there will be additional frying later. Next dice one onion ,one yellow pepper and stem, seed and dice a poblano chile. Chop up about a 1/3 of a can of Spam. Remember this is personalized so choose your meat wisely! Fry in a pan the onions, pepper, chile and spam until it is slightly caramelized, then mix in the pre-steamed root veggies. Mix gently and cook allowing the mixture to brown slightly and flavors to meld. Add salt and pepper to taste and a generous swirl of cream if desired. If you want that really browned look, you will need to make sure your pan is well seasoned (preferably with a good dose of bacon grease) and don’t stir the root celebratory jumble too much. Fry or poach an egg or two. Place a generous mound of the Red Flannel in a deep bowl and slide the egg/s on top and sprinkle with chopped parsley. I especially like a few coarse grains of finishing salt and a fat dollop of plain yogurt as well. Eat now, talk later.