I forgot, last week, the suffix to Spring, at least when you have little people about: BREAK!
The kiddos were off these past ten days, and we're all a little bleary-eyed and wobbly-pinned, these first days back. Mondays are iffy. Mondays after Spring Break, doubly so. I've been leaning heavily on the 3x5" index card I scrawled for myself, just before school let out. Knowing I would forget everything important, I jotted down a few Must Remembers for yesterday, like Take Out Trash, and Send Important E-mails, BE PATIENT, and BE KIND. I didn't exactly bat 1000. But I haven't yet biffed it entirely, either. We won't, at the very least, be lamenting last week's garbage, next Thursday. So I think I'll call it a Qualified Success. And I thought I'd pop over with a wave and hello.
It was just what we all needed, I think, this pile-up of days in the middle of March.
Playing dominoes, drawing with wax, puzzling out hopping frogs. Memorizing Charlie Harper. Bearing witness to an embarassment of flowers.
There were dinosaurs, and playdates, and Graeter's waffle cones. Come to think of it, that might've made the Break, right there. But that was just day number one.
Our usual St. Patrick's Day feast didn't happen. But some of us found gold at the end of the rainbow, complete with leprauchaun. That made up for a lot.
We welcomed a bit of weather whiplash, with nights back to freezing, and days bright but nippy. We bobbed for apples. Only with marshmallows instead of apples. And with hot cocoa instead of water. Because we won't be needing either, a month from now, and we'd best clear out the fridge and pantry.
(All in the name of spring cleaning, you understand.)
Long-overdue projects were tackled. I cleaned out my purse, for example. I lost eight pounds instantly, mostly in crumbs. I vacuumed my car. That took the better part of a Saturday afternoon. There were Cheerios, people. We haven't brought Cheerios along in the car in I-don't-know-how-long. We used up the very last stale house stash last summer. In bracelets. Seeing as they weren't suitable for human consumption.
Like I said: needed. I should preface that: sorely.
Balancing spoons on frozen-blueberry bowls. Important stuff like that.
(Spoon photo by Max. Balancing talent, also.)
We dug for bugs.
We searched for swirls.
Oh. And we went to Montréal.
Nous sommes allées à Montréal!
By car. Twelve hours, and one-half. In one day. Twice in one week. (Gas stops, meals, border crossings, chocolate emergencies, not included.)
Still recovering. More on Montréal later.
Until then: beets and oranges. (Like I said: more salads.)
But beets. Do you do beets? I do, and adore them. Fiercely.
For one thing, they are devilishly convenient. I am no Tamar Adler when it comes to produce processing. I am lucky if I get my groceries in the fridge before nightfall, never mind roasting the week's veg before they ever see the crisper. Never, that is, save for my beets.
Years ago, I began mindlessly roasting my beets as I put away the pretzels and dish soap. Roasting beets is about as basic as it gets: trim, rinse, and place in a Pyrex pie plate, with a half-inch of water and a tight lid of foil. Slide them in solo, or alongside whatever you're baking, at whatever temperature you want, until a knife mistakes your beets for butter. I've baked beets alongside cakes, and granola, and bread, and lasagne, and cookies, and just last night, baked potatoes. There's no peeling, no chopping, no prepping, no thinking. Sign me up yesterday. This is so my style.
What you wind up with is sweet garnet meat, giant balls of the stuff, tender, earthy, vivid. They are excellent tucked into mustardy French lentils, or tossed with cucumbers, dill, and sour cream. I can often be found eating them out of hand, whole, like an apple, though that does get a little Lady MacBeth. (Temporarily. Plain old soap and water makes quick work of ghoulish hands. And their storied staining power is much ado about nothing: Clorox 2 gets beet juice out of anything. You could, I suppose, go with golden beets, but where, precisely, is the thrill in that?)
But among my most beloved beet standbys is a simple salad with orange, feta, and mint. The beets are diced, plated and drizzled with vinegar. Okay, alright, full disclosure: strike 'drizzled'; insert 'lashed'. Roasted beets love vinegar. Roasted beets need vinegar. Beets are sweet, no matter which way you fix them, floating in borscht or grated raw into flinty salads. But roasting intensifies beets' sweetness exponentially, intensifying them into a concentrated, almost syrupy swagger. This is a good thing. A good thing bettered by vinegar.
The acid adds interest and edge and dimension, harmony to the melody, Amy Ray to Emily Saliers. It does not, I should note, yield your average Acme canned beet, which is strident and sharp and a little bit tawdry. The home-roasted spiked beet is another beast completely, rich, well-rounded, intense, decadent. Talk about a strong foundation.
To this, you pile on the chopped meat of an orange, a toss of good feta, a tangle of fresh mint. The bright citrus sweet is entirely unlike the stored underground sort, which is fascinating, and wonderful. It's sun and soil, distilled and assembled, amped up on feta's twang and the fresh slap of cool mint. Sometimes I build it on a base of baby spinach. Often, I add a smattering of roasted, salted pistachios, which amaze. Mostly, I make it over and over, just like this, just the very best bits. I ate some for lunch, not long before we left. And again for brunch, this very morning. Chances are, I'll double it for dinner, and eat it again, before the week's out. Because there are beets in the fridge, ready and waiting, and five minutes between me and a feast. Join me?
Beets + Oranges with Feta + Mint
If you live in a place where new spring beets are coming on: congratulations! This is as fine a place to honor them as any. If you live in a place where senile storage beets are all that are on offer: congratulations! Beets are one of the best keepers I know. We are decisively in this latter category, and I continue to marvel over the beet's mysterious stamina.
As written, this makes a tidy lunch for one; scale up as needed. Beets are often paired with chèvre, but I prefer something more toothsome. Feta, ricotta salata, queso fresco all work beautifully here. Finally: I build this salad from the beets up, because they color everything in a heartbeat. Your snowy feta will be lurid magenta within minutes. And all the more delicious for it. But, you know, FYI.
1 plump, juicy navel orange
1 plump roasted beet, peeled**
1 tablespoon sweet, mild vinegar (raspberry, cider, any color wine, sherry...)
drizzle olive oil
2-3 tablespoons good feta, crumbled
2-3 tablespoons' fresh mint, slivered
salted, roasted pistachios (optional)
salt and pepper, to taste
Cut peeled, roasted beet into bite-size (1/2-1") bits, and set on plate. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon vinegar over all, add a good pinch of salt, and let beets drink this up while you prepare your orange...
Semi-suprême your orange: with a sharp paring knife, top and tail your orange, and set it on it's newly flat end. Work your way around the sides, paring peel and pith from the fruit. Once you are down to a sphere of fruit, separate it into halves, remove the pithy core, and slice it (interior pith and all) into bite-size (1/2-1") bits. Set orange bits on beets.
Crumble your feta, sliver your mint, roughly chop pistachios, if using, and scatter all over beets and oranges. Drizzle with a bit more vinegar, and a touch of olive oil, and final flurry of salt and fresh pepper. Smile.
To roast your beets: Trim leaves off, leaving an inch of stalk, and set aside for soups or sautées. Wash, and place in a small baking dish (Pyrex pie plates work beautifully) with a half-inch of water, and cover tightly with foil. Bake beets in the oven, with whatever else is baking, anywhere from 275º to 450º, until a knife glides through the biggest beet with ease. This may take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half, depending on beet size and oven temperature. Test after 45 minutes, and if you meet any resistance, return to the oven again, adding more water if needed and sealing foil tightly. Most of my beets take around an hour at 400º. When done, cool slightly, top and tail, then roll each beet gently in a clean paper towel: the skin will slide right off. Use immediately, or store in the refrigerator for later use. Roasted beets keep beautifully for 5-7 days.