When I peeped at it a couple of days ago, my Instagram account was brown. Dark walnut kind of brown. Assam tea kind of brown. Burned caramel type of brown. With a sprinkle of salt and lace.
It's that time of the year. Food is brown, market is brown, snow -- if it happens at all (because global warming DOES exist) -- snow is kind of brown too in this Big Gotham City of ours. And while normally it doesn't bother me -- as a matter of fact, under normal circumstances it is quite the opposite, normally I like the late winter brown foods, rustic and homey -- this time I took it badly.
I blame it on the overall state of affairs... But enough with that.
As a result, something had to be done. Something kind of colorful, with a hint of white, to supplement the snow we don't have anymore.
Another reason for this post is that I am into plating big time. You might have noticed that I've been somewhat absent from this corner of the web. At first, I was baking breads. Then over the holidays, I took some badly needed time off (during which I promptly got a flu, hence you can imagine the time off and the holiday). And now I am plating. I've bee plating so much that there is no time to do anything else, let alone write and photograph.
Plating has never been my forte. But I do have an excuse. A pretty damn good one. I like to cook and eat dishes that do not land themselves to plating naturally. The dig-in-dive-in kind of stuff. Imagine a ten-hour roasted lamb: gigantic, brown, swimming in an ocean of brown sauce, with a big bone protruding in the middle. That's my idea of good food. And how does one plate that? Perhaps there is a way to take a tiny piece of it and serve it on a crisp-white porcelain plate, with a cluster of tear-like droplets of that sauce, and a small garden of microgreens? Yeah, but it will never taste the same. Or, how about my favorite macaroni in yellow tomato sauce, a simple poor man's bowl with nothing else but sweetness of the tomatoes and good old pasta goodness?
I've been thinking about it a lot recently. How would one plate our all time favorite dishes like beef Bourguignon and chicken paprikash in a Michelin three-star kind of way? If I ever get a good fortune to meet Chef Ripert, Chef Keller or Chef Vongerichten, I will most definitely ask them that question.
On a second thought, it kind of explains why majority of dishes in Michelin-star restaurants are reduced to a piece of quail, duck, fish, or pork belly, surrounded by artistic splashes of multi-colored sauces, shaved vegetables and edible flowers. (Please, please, please -- do not take this as if I am against Michelin-star restaurants. Quite the contrary. But it's been a rough couple of months, and I need to bitch a little to feel better. And quite frankly, a couple of notable exceptions aside, there is some truth to my words.)
Back to the current color scheme.
The wise men have once said that "if the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain". Or was it "if you can't beat them, you join them"? So rather than plating the stew and the paprikash, I decided to turn to the Michelin-stared chefs and their recipes. Because they ought to be "plate-able", right? And that is how I landed at Alain Passard's recipe for red beetroot with lavender and crushed blackberries.
Just like the cookbook it appeared in -- The Art of Cooking with Vegetables -- it's an intriguing dish, an ode to beautiful produce, and as Chef Passard writes in the preface "innovative, sometimes unimaginable, partnership of ingredients to delight and surprise you". Beets and blackberries -- it's an odd partnership -- yet one Mother Nature wanted us to try because she wrote it in their colors. Hint, hint guys, beets and blackberries.
So, how come no one noticed it before?
I confess to having second thoughts about the endeavor when I tasted the blackberry sauce. Since we are into odd partnerships, imagine this: blackberries simmered in butter, basil, soy sauce and balsamic. When I gave it a try it tasted funky, in a umami kind of way, almost like a spoon of marmite, and I was this close to giving up. But when I spooned the sauce on top of the beets, it suddenly became so clear, so obvious that they are made for each other.
This was a fun project. And most importantly, I learned something new. I've been a long-time proponent of roasting beets, but the recipe said to cook them "in lightly salted simmering water", and "leave them to cool in their cooking water". It's a lovely technique. It takes away that beet-y flavor many do not like, until only sweetness remains. Plus you get the beet water. Big time. In its entire pomegranate-colored-red-gently-sweet-crystal-clear glory. That my friends, is a bonus surprise. Two dishes instead of one. Think risotto, orzo, or Indian beet rasam soup, made with that ruby-colored liquid. In the spirit of full disclosure, I cooked them all for this post, but did not know how to plate them. Therefore the beets only.
But they are worth it.
Beet Salad with Blackberry Coulis and Goat Cheese
Adapted from The Art of Cooking with Vegetables, by Alain Passard
I took some liberties with the Chef's dish. I had no fresh lavender, and adding dry one did not seem right. The recipe calls for serving the beets with milk foam, but let's be honest, who eats milk foam? I like my beets with goat cheese. Even my daughter -- who does not eat beets -- polished her plate.
* 4 medium sized red beets
* 6 oz blackberries
* 1 tbsp olive oil
* 2 tbsp butter
* 1 tbsp soy sauce
* 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
* 3 large basil leaves, coarsely cut
* 3 oz fresh goat cheese (chevre)
* a tiny pinch of salt
Cut off the leaves from the beets, leaving one or two inches of stem. Wash the beets carefully. Do not peel off the skin, and do not cut off the tap roots. Fill up a small pan with water and salt it gently. Add the beets. Bring to a simmer. Cook the beets for about 40-60 minutes (depending on the size). Leave the beets to cool in their cooking water. When they are cool enough to handle, slip them free of their skin and set aside.
While the beets are cooking, shape the goat cheese into tiny balls. (If you have silicon molds for making chocolates, you can use them to make additional shapes. Fill up the mold with the cheese, and place in a freezer for an hour. It will make cheese easier to remove. Make sure you do this ahead, as the cheese will need about 30 minutes to get back to room temperature.)
Combine the butter and olive oil in a sauté pan over low heat. When the butter is melted add the blackberries. After a few minutes, crush them with a fork. Continue to cook for another five minutes, until their juices flow readily. Add the soy sauce, balsamic vinegar and basil. Leave the mixture to simmer over very low heat for another 5 minutes, until it acquires deep woodsy smell (Chef Passard describes it at "smoky").
Cut the beets crosswise into 1/8-inch slices and arrange them on a platter. Top each slice with a dollop of the blackberry sauce, and place one goat cheese ball on it. Distribute other goat cheese shapes around. If you like, sprinkle with salt and pepper (and fresh lavender if you happen to have some.)