Saturday, January 1, 2011

Beet Salad

     I must apologize, as it has been over a month since my last post.  Things have been, well, preoccupying.  We left our homestead in northeast Wyoming for better work, or as I should say, better food.  Our move west to the Rogue Valley of Southern Oregon went well, despite the challenges associated with packing our belongings across a frozen footbridge and into a 6' X 12' trailer in the dead of winter, then driving it halfway across the country over icy passes and through frequent snowstorms whipping the over-sized load in tow.  Might I add, this is the second time we have done this sort of "I'll never do that again," kind of towing in inclement weather.  We were fortunate to approach the Denio Pass (with it's white knuckle, sweaty brow, cliff hanging, sans guard-rail, gravel strewn, boulder dropping, 8 percent grade) during a lull in the late November storms prevalent throughout the northern Nevada ranges.

Fog sets on snow-speckled mountains surrounding pear orchards in the Rogue Valley.

      Southern Oregon is beautiful and rich.  Beautiful for the magnificently mystical mountains covered in various types of trees, which create a stage for the daily displays of fog dancing on the peaks and valleys.    It is rich, for the abundance of locally grown, sustainable products found at the markets.  Sustainable farming is the future of food.  Roughly speaking, it is a practice that takes no more from the earth than it gives back 'sustaining' a healthy ecosystem within the agricultural environment.  Most organic farming operations are well aware of such practical methods.
     Joel Salatin, of Polyface Farms in Virginia, is a shining example of sustainable farming.  He has shown that sustainable farming does not require reinventing the wheel.  Instead, following older techniques and understanding biodynamic relationships between animals and plants allows a farm to produce high quality foods without chemical dependencies.  Encouraging chickens to scratch through pastures just after cattle have grazed, prevents the need to use anti-worm medication in the cows, but also provides manure disbursement (which would otherwise burn the grass where the dung was left intact.)  Also, allowing many different crops to grow in the same plot of land eliminates the exploitative deterioration of soil quality found in all monoculture systems after only a few years.  Further examples of sustainable farming include: rain-water gathering for irrigation, biological filtering of waste-waters, recycling of manure for all-natural fertilizer or methane gas, and even bio-diesel production from poor quality or surplus crops to run agricultural machinery.  Small steps like these add up to a better future for everyone, but primarily for the farmer who is unable to make ends meet in a world overrun with a consumer-based appetite for fast and cheap.
     The food industry has, at long last, slowly turned a marketable corner down the road of limitless opportunity, cobbled with free resources, and gas lit by no-impact righteousness (at least within most of Europe, coastal United States, Asia and Australia; basically anywhere with a conscientious population.)  Standing Stone Brewing Company in Ashland, Oregon has made extensive efforts to run a restaurant and brewery as environmentally pro-active as possible.  They even provide beneficial incentives encouraging employees to bicycle to work.  This trend will hopefully overpower the corporate domination of food production systems, currently growing throughout the world, within our lifetimes.  'Hopefully,' is a moderate word to use.
     In my opinion, incredibly wealthy companies like Monsanto repeatedly destroy efforts made to better the future of food by lobbying and passing bills favorable to their biotechnological reign.  Vote against the eternal ownership of all seed genetics and against the production of genetically modified foods, in order to save our agricultural system from total obliteration by not buying ANY of their products.  Europe has already kicked this 'Franken-food' out of the continent as we should have, long ago.  For more detailed information, watch: Food Inc.,  The Beautiful Truth,  Food Matters,  King Corn,  Dirt! The Movie or read any of Michael Pollan's books.  Next step, VOTE with your purchases; it's the only way.

Okay, enough ranting, no more digressions . . .

     Much of our new life here in Oregon will revolve around the world of frugality.  Spending little is crucial to making it through hard transitions.  Our new home has no garden, no chicken coop, nor does it have a fish-filled creek running through it.  There is no fireplace to fuel and no tools to build with (in this last year alone, I have built 3 bridges, 1 trolley, and 1 gondola just to cross the creek for road access.)  It is a different lifestyle here, one which we have lived before.  Still, I must admit how strange it is to venture into town daily, for errands, job hunting, and even to shop for delicious, organic food.  Living at the cabin, we needed little from the city proper itself, other than milk and proteins.  Things must change though, in order to progress but, also, in order to share a knowledge worth it's weight in beans, so to speak.
     Alas, I must share my favorite utilization of the humble beet.  Beets have been essential to commercial sugar production for many years.  Sweet, simple to cook, vibrantly colored, and healthy to boot; the beet is a universal food for the creative cook (who must also be tolerant of stained hands.)  Simply roasted with some sherry, butter and water, then peeled, cooled and cut is my favorite way to enjoy beets.  The greens are incredible as well, providing many essential vitamin and mineral contributions to a delicious braised side dish.  However, the usually ruby-colored gem hidden beneath the soil is certainly the prize.

     Thanks to Ruby's mother, we have several jars of canned beets (schlepped from our garden in Wyoming, miraculously preserved with all their deliciousness) for our enjoyment through such fiscally harrowing times.  Canning increases the shelf-life of foods to their ultimate limits (other than drying, of course.)  Much like most processed foods, sanitation and sterilization are key to canning well.  Properly canned beets can taste as good as the day they were picked.
     I have decided to share a recipe from the early days of my career.  This dish sold like hotcakes in a now closed restaurant, primarily because beets were making a come-back on menus everywhere, but also because the dish itself was brilliantly coordinated.  There are many things that just taste great, and that is all that need be explained.  This is one of those things.  I wish I could describe the flavor of this dish better than I know how.  It tastes like what the beet wanted to do, what it wanted to become.  I know, it sounds incredibly cheesy, but I am not making this up.  If the beet could speak, it would say: "Serve me with blue cheese in a lemon-parsley vinaigrette, please and thank you."  (Because beets are so very polite.)

Vibrant vinaigrette pictured with Oregon Blue Cheese.

     This dish is pictured with a balsamic reduction for visual contrast and depth of flavor.  Additionally, I used Rogue Creamery's Oregon Blue Cheese made (from raw milk) in Central Point, just a few miles from our home.  Their artisan cheeses are crafted with a commitment to sustainability.  In California, we would use Point Reyes Blue Cheese (my personal favorite) instead, because it was closer to home (another sustainable product as well).
     Watercress is a suitable medium for this salad, but mâche (lamb's lettuce or corn salad) would be optimal.  The texture of crisp greens is more important than the peppery flavor.  Italian flat-leaf parsley has a much more palatable flavor than its curly cousin, therefore, securing its preferential use in the vinaigrette.  Also, canned beets were utilized instead of, ideally, fresh roasted beets.  If pickled beets are all that is available, omit the vinegar in the dressing and deconstruct its essential components: lemon zest, parsley, shallot, and olive oil.  Combined, the separate ingredients marry into their own dressed completeness.

Lemon Parsley Vinaigrette

1 large bunch picked Italian flat parsley (3 cups packed)
3 lemons zested
1 lemon juiced
1 shallot
1 clove garlic
1 Tbs sugar
1 Tbs whole grain mustard
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
1 1/2 cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Blend all ingredients until smooth.
*Makes just over 1 quart.

Beet Salad

3 ounces roasted beets (peeled, cooled, and cut into 1/8ths)
1 ounce mâche, watercress, or micro-greens
2 ounces blue cheese
1 ounce lemon parsley vinaigrette
pinch salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Toss lightly and serve.