Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Beet Beatitude

How to Treat a Beet

Last year, on the day before Mother’s Day, I was Saturday-morning busy when I remembered it was the first Farmers’ Market and, without much thinking about it, walked into Depot Park in Rutland... and felt a surprising jolt of what could only be called joy! There they all were once again as they have been year after year since the early seventies – those farmers and their wives and husbands and children, and their students and interns, with the beautiful, glorious, hopeful, delicious products got by the sweat of their brows: The Rutland County Farmers’ Market.

Though it’s always too early mid-May to buy much more fresh-from-the-earth than some new baby spinach and possibly a bunch of radishes and maybe beets – which in any case can be pulled soon – there are the starts of plants for our own gardens, as well as those foods that know no season – the cheeses and breads and pastries and pickles and salsa and log-grown mushrooms and fresh eggs and organic meats. And, just as importantly, all the friends and families and acquaintances and strangers and even tourists are there, who love this seasonal and weekly festival and support it with their presence and their dollars.

Taken all together, these are the people who know the value of keeping our food supply healthy and local and, as much as possible, organic; and who will pit their formidable energy and presence against the forces that compromise it.

One of those forces is plain old garden-variety ignorance. This is not a blameworthy ignorance, but only a reflection that society has changed so much that food knowledge has been left behind, at first because women wanted not to have to be dealing with food all the time (which may be an unreasonable goal, after all, for men and woman), and now because, even if people want to be dealing with food in more depth, many don’t know how.

case in point, a bunch of beets...

Perhaps it was a good year for beets last spring, or perhaps I just noticed the phenomenon, but bunches of beets were piled high on the farmers’ stands from the time their leaves were a tender, red-veined green and their rough-skinned tubers, wine-red and sprinkled with earth, were the size of an apricot, to the time when the leaves were dark green and leathery and the fruit was the size of a tennis ball. All spring, in other words, and all fall.

Now I know – and of course you do, too – that you do not peel a beet before it’s cooked. You leave an inch of stem on, leave the root alone, scrub off the worst of the dirt without breaking the skin, and then you roast them in a hot oven or on a grill, or simply boil them in enough water to cover them – possibly half an hour, but more likely 45 minutes. And you don’t poke and prod at them, to see if they’re done, until the last minutes, because you don’t want them to bleed to death of both color and flavor. When they’re tender to a fork’s tines, to the center, you drain them and let them cool a little bit and then wring them between your hands in such a way as to rub the skin and the stem and the root off.

But who, looking at the piles of bulbous and grimy things piled on the farmer’s counter, would know that.

not a young woman...

Take the young woman I watched at the Farmers’ Market one Tuesday last summer. The Tuesday Market is not quite the fiesta that it is on Saturday. The element of celebration is muted – though not entirely missing – unless you get your kicks from fresh vegetables straight from the field, which, of course, many of us do. The most unlikely people will come to the Farmers’ Market on Tuesday and you’ll notice them, which you might not do on a Saturday, and they’ll have time to ask questions and maybe the confidence to take up the farmers’ time and appear a bit ignorant. Like the young woman who handled the beets and finally said, in a slightly disgusted tone, “What are these?”

“Beets,” the farmer said. The young woman said, “Oh,” and went on to the next bin of whatever – summer squash, say, three different kinds of them or half a dozen, all a little different shape and color or, in that early part of the season, radishes, which she probably did recognize, or spinach, which she might think was lettuce, but whatever it was she would say to hell with it.

But why had she gone on from beets? Especially in the beginning of the season when beets are almost all that are coming out of the ground? Had she tasted them and found them wanting? Or had she never tasted them and had no wish to? Did they seem too much work?

Patiently, the farmer brought the young woman’s attention back to the beets. “You don’t peel these, you see,” she pointed out. And she told her how to prepare them. The young woman’s eyes widened in relief – the skins just slipped off? And they’re sweet? What a difference that made in deciding whether or not to deal with these gnarly things. She bought a bunch of beets, and paid for them with Farm to Family Coupons.

Which, by the way, is one of those things we’ve done right. I suspect this young woman would not have been at the Market if she had not had to go there to cash in those Farmers’ Market food stamps. It may have changed her life.

I asked my daughter, who is a young woman, if she knew how to cook a beet. She thought, looking off into space, that she must know, but then shook her head.

nor the older ...

It’s not only young people who do not know how to treat a beet. “How do you feel about beets?” I asked my friend, Kathi, the other night as we chatted on the phone. (My friends are used to non-sequiturs from me.)

There was a long silence. I waited. And then she burst forth. “How do I feel about beets? Sharon! I don’t like them!”

“You don’t like them?” I feigned incredulity. “But why not? They’re as sweet, almost, as candy, the most beautiful dark red in color with darker rings like the ages of a tree; and crisp and tender at the same time. And the leaves! Fantastic things, all crinkly green with red and white veins. Why don’t you like them?”

“Well,” she wailed, “I don’t know what to do with them.”

but the old ladies know...

My grandmother served them in what she called a Harvard sauce, a kind of sweetened and vinegary white sauce made by stirring flour or cornstarch into butter over a medium heat and then thinning it, probably with water in this case. Into that white sauce or blancmange or roux, when it had thickened and the flour taste cooked out, would be stirred sugar and vinegar, probably a cider vinegar. The beets were sliced into this sweet and sour and buttery sauce and turned to coat them. Salt and pepper added their emphasis at some point, and I would suggest the latter should be ground over the beets just before serving. Liberally.

Some people cut the beets into half-inch chunks instead of slices, and no doubt some of the grand ladies of Grandma’s day shredded them with the new gadget they’d acquired. Some restaurants now top a salad with deep-fried, crispy shreds of beets. I’m more likely to cut them into quarter inch sticks – a fat julienne.

After you’ve cut them up, put them into a bowl and simply sprinkle them with sea salt, douse them with olive oil – 2 to 3 tablespoons, and then add enough balsamic vinegar – or a combination of raw cider vinegar and balsamic – to make them sprightly. I slice a small onion or part of a larger one very thinly, to add. Sometimes I sliver a clove of garlic. These are essentially pickled vegetables and keep for quite a long time in the refrigerator. If you can keep them. We eat them right up.

As for the leaves, they are delicious when sautéed in some olive oil and garlic, or they could make the basis of a quiche; or simmer the older leaves with a ham hock or salt pork for flavor. I like to make a nest of them in the bottom of a Dutch oven for a pot roast. Lovely broth results.

For young beets, cook them first, and then the leaves, combine and serve with just butter and salt and pepper. Or cook some bacon until crisp, remove from the pan, sauté the beet greens in some of the bacon grease, and serve as a warm salad with the beets sliced over the greens, topped with the crumbled bacon and crumbled bleu cheese, gorgonzola or stilton, perhaps some walnuts, and a sprinkling of cider vinegar.

The other night I made a salad of arugula, julienned beets, soft, creamy goat cheese, slices of mango – those little yellow, organic ones that are available at the Rutland Co-Op now – chopped cilantro, a sprinkling of walnuts, balsamic vinegar and olive oil. (If I’d had an orange I would have zested it so that the oils from the skin, as well as the zest, sprinkled over the salad; which gets me thinking – strawberries would also be a good beet complement.) It was followed by pork tenderloins that I butterflied and folded around chopped dried apricots (because that’s what I had) and walnuts mixed with a little yogurt. Roasted for half an hour or so on a bed of half-cooked orzo, they were succulent.

I haven’t mentioned beet soup or borscht, but if I had I would’ve said: Sauté some onion and, if you like, garlic, add the cooked, skinned beets and mash them up with a potato masher. Stir in beef or vegetable stock. If you want a smooth soup put it in a blender or use a hand-held one. This can be finished off by stirring in some heavy cream that has been heated just until bubbles begin to form around the edges; or you can top it off with a dollop of crème fraiche, sour cream or yogurt.

Another friend mentioned a beet soup he’d had in Maine several years ago that contained blueberries. “It was not only the best borscht I’ve ever had, it was the best bowl of soup I’ve had in my life,” he said. I’d love to know how that was put together. I’ve made one with a topping of walnuts and anchovies chopped together into a paste and then stirred into the soup, but that’s a different animal.

tell me again......

Why go to all this trouble to treat a beet? Well, start with the fact that they’re delicious and go on from there to the fact that you can easily find ones that are locally and organically grown. Plus, they’re full of essential vitamins and minerals, says an article in Mother Earth News: “They are rich in calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, vitamin C, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin A and vitamin K. Beets store most of these nutrients in their leaves — which beet-eaters sometimes neglect — but recent investigations into their nutritional make-up bode well for the roots as well. Irwin Goldman, a beet geneticist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has shown that beet greens and beet roots are one of the best dietary sources of folate, which is one of the B vitamins.”

If you want to capitalize on that healthiness, make this Beet Kvass drink that I found in Nourishing Traditions: Into a 2 quart glass container place 3 medium or 2 large organic beets, scrubbed clean and chopped coarsely; ¼ cup of whey (the watery liquid you can pour off a container of plain yogurt); and 1 tablespoon of sea salt. Add filtered water to fill the container. Stir well and cover securely. Keep at room temperature for 2 days before transferring to the refrigerator. You drink 4 ounces of this morning and evening. It adds flora to your digestive system, “is an excellent blood tonic, promotes regularity, aids digestion, alkalizes the blood, cleanses the liver...” You get the idea.

There’s no end to what can be done with three dollars worth of beets bought from a farmer at the Farmers’ Market. Sitting there all pink and pretty on the plate, they give no inkling of the work that has gone into getting them there from a genetically unaltered seed, without pesticides or other petroleum products, from earth that hasn’t experienced those depredations either.

Here’s to the beet. What a treat!

This column was first published in the Rutland (Vermont) Herald May 22, 2007

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The (endangered) Fat of the Land


Eat lots of GOOD fat, says a book that was passed to me recently and almost furtively by a woman I’ve known for a long, long time but not well; a woman I would have sworn would eat the most purely vegetarian diet, with lots of soy and no fat.

Eat lots of fat, Mary Enig and Sally Fallon advise in Eat Fat Lose Fat, from grass-fed beef and their whole, unpasteurized milk and cream and butter; and from foraging hogs and sunshiny, run-around chickens and their eggs. Eat it from the brown bottles of cod liver oil and wheat germ, and eat it from the hairy brown shell of the coconut and the palm kernel.

I dug my nose out of the book and glanced up at my old acquaintance with shock and awe and the beginnings of understanding.

Eat SATURATED fat, the book said, the kind that stands up and hardens up and makes strong bones and arteries and hearts and brains and nerves, and that satiates us so we don’t overeat, and that gives us energy to do what we must do; that contains enzymes and vitamins and cholesterol and Omega 3s to combat stress, food cravings, and physical dis-ease.

The worry lines on my friend’s face smoothed out into relief as we both laughed gleefully at sharing this secret – we both appreciated FAT, that wonderful and maligned substance, and agonized over the disturbing and destructive pronouncements of the various government and health officials over the last fifty years that have made the public fear it. Those are the same fifty years, you’ll note, that have culminated in epidemics of obesity, depression, and diabetes. Not even to mention heart disease. Osteoporosis. Alzheimer’s. The sad list goes on.

... Too soon old, too late smart

That was a constant comment of my grandmother’s, one that I recall more and more often as I get older.

I grew up on farms. I slogged barefoot down the pasture path to “get the cows” every afternoon. I drank the milk from the pail of it Grandpa slung inside the kitchen door every night; ate the thick cream skimmed off it on my cereal; slathered the butter made of the rest of the cream on my bread; picked berries with Grandma down by the swamp, watched her make piecrust out of lard to bake those berries in, helped her weed the vegetable garden, fed the chickens that scratched in the henyard, stole their eggs out from under them and, late on November nights, sat on the kitchen counter thumping my heels impatiently into the cupboard door as I waited for the cracklings and chips Grandma was frying in the vat of lard she’d rendered from the pig that had been slaughtered that early morning.

Little did I know at the time that in the coming years every one of those foods would be declared criminal; that they would kill me sooner or later, as they did my grandmother, finally, at the age of 87. And, if I had known, it wouldn’t have made any difference. That was food. There wasn’t anything else.

There still isn’t, unless you count industrialized commodities made in factories of stuff grown on fields that have been devastated by chemicals and monoculture, many of them from genetically modified seeds; seeds and fields owned by gigantic chemical and drug companies. Or of animals that never see the light of day, raised in crowded and filthy conditions.

Thanks. But no thanks.

But those are the entities that the federal government deems worthy of massive farm subsidies. In his devastating April 22 article in the New York Times, “You are What You Grow”, Michael Pollan says, “A public-health researcher from Mars might legitimately wonder why a nation faced with what its surgeon general has called “an epidemic” of obesity would at the same time be in the business of subsidizing the production of high-fructose corn syrup. But such is the perversity of the farm bill: the nation’s agricultural policies operate at cross-purposes with its public-health objectives.”

... Rumors about food

There were whispers in the late 1950s among my weight-conscious friends that one should not eat meat anymore, but macaroni and spaghetti did not interest me besides a passing note that the world was full of idiots. In college I gave up food completely – drank coffee and ate out of tins, and also found that 69 cents worth of rice would feed two of us for a week. But there’s nothing like new maternal feelings to bring you back to Food Earth, so it was that with the birth of my first child I found Adele Davis, liver, nutritional yeast, and brown rice, and when I told my dad I needed to find a health food store, he said, “Isn’t that redundant? Food IS healthy.” The irony of this became clear ten years later when he mentioned that his doctor had told him to quit eating eggs. “Dad,” I said, “There can’t be anything healthier than eggs, everything needed for life wrapped up in one neat little eggshell.” But he obeyed his doctor, and when he died two years later of a massive heart attack, he had not eaten an egg for years, nor a pork chop with its fat intact, nor a good sirloin, his heart’s love, but there was a box of Twinkies in the freezer that my mother found, nearly empty.

Pollan on Twinkies: “Compared with a bunch of carrots, a package of Twinkies, to take one iconic processed foodlike substance as an example, is a highly complicated, high-tech piece of manufacture, involving no fewer than 39 ingredients, many themselves elaborately manufactured, as well as the packaging and a hefty marketing budget. So how can the supermarket possibly sell a pair of these synthetic cream-filled pseudocakes for less than a bunch of roots?

... a hero

But the real proof of the suet pudding came to me personally in the form of a man whom I admire greatly – Dr. Atkins, who fearlessly published the first high protein and fat, low carbohydrate diet. I followed it in the mid ‘70s, lost thirty pounds in the twinkling of an eye, hair great, skin, too, and felt wonderful. But of course this couldn’t be healthy, I thought, abandoning every bit of sense I’d been born with, and back came the grudging fat-avoidance, the occasional chip, piles of mashed potatoes (have one pile and you immediately want another), wonderful batons of French bread....... I “did” Atkins again a couple of decades later in spite of having been told I needed to lower my cholesterol. Again, almost effortless weight loss, great strength, shiny hair, bright eyes. So it was with dread that I went to have my cholesterol checked: It was down twenty points and the HDL was sky high. Well, that did it. I went back to my computer to try to find out where the fear of fat had come from.

...Who’s the Culprit

What I found was a morass of studies and statistics dating back to the early ‘50s, and a lot of questions, and the realization that the biggest challenge of all was following the dollar. Who sponsored which study, and who benefited. And I came to realize that the entities that were perfectly positioned, back then, to satisfy the demand for an alternate and supposedly healthier fat were the big food companies with names like General Foods, National Biscuit Company, and Kraft. They already controlled the cereal fields from which vegetable oils could be processed: Corn, peanuts, soybeans, and lately the Canadian oil – Canola – that is extracted from a selectively bred and genetically altered rape seed formerly used as an industrial lubricant and never, ever as a human food (In fact, almost all of the seeds that make up these oils are grown from genetically modified seeds). Those companies melded into conglomerates in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s and wielded tremendous power over the government and the public, becoming almost a dictatorship as they were taken over by tobacco and pharmaceutical companies in the ‘90s and into the present. The fields they plow and plunder are immense, the great heart of our country. And where would they be now without our carefully inculcated Fear of Fat. Theirs has been an insidious creep to power and I’m not sure how anyone would recognize it who hasn’t experienced it.

...Heroes and Unwitting Villains

Michael Pollan, like a charming bloodhound, is snuffing his way along the littered trail of our wrecked food chain in numerous articles and books such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Mary Enig, a well-published bio-chemist and nutritionist, and an expert on fats, has been marginalized by the industry for her investigations into trans fats and vegetable oils, but she keeps plugging away spiritedly. Her comprehensive review of the studies and findings at the beginning of Eat Fat is extremely helpful.

We’re all going to have to keep plugging away, because the myth of the danger of saturated animal fats, as well as the myth of the healthfulness of polyunsaturates, is by now deep in our American psyche. The whole story struggles to get out, but our translators of knowledge – reporters and journalists – can’t quite let it. They report the facts and then they fall back into assumptions that knee-jerk their way into the story.

In an article called “So Bad, it’s Scary”, ostensibly about the dangers of trans-fats, (Herald, 4/12/06) Lisa Ryckman concentrates instead almost solely on the dangers of saturated fats. As in, now that we can’t eat partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, what CAN we eat? Not (shudder) animal fat! An article called “Better Choices Healthier Kids”, by David Aguilar (Herald 4/16/07) is accompanied by a photo of three tubes of fat – Tube 3 is full of fat from a quarter pound cheeseburger. Tube 2 is half full of fat from 1 cup of whole milk; and the first tube is a third full of fat from 4 graham crackers or 10 saltine crackers. Now what do we learn from that? That it’s healthier for a kid to eat 10 saltines than a hamburger? That after eating their ten saltines s’he’s going to be satiated, have an ounce of energy? On April 18th, Lauran Neergaard wonders “If Foods Dump Trans Fat, Are They Really Getting Healthier?”

“It become very clear that trans fat is far worse than saturated fat,” says Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, and a professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School. Although he doesn’t go so far as to endorse animal fats, he does say, in an interview for PBS’s Frontline, “some types of fatty acids in the diet, in particular the omega-3 fatty acids, can actually reduce the heart arrhythmias that really cause people to drop dead in the street.” Omega-3s are found in fish, flax, grass-fed animals, and – who-knew – eggs-yolks. Sorry, Dad. Very often,” Willett says, “science is presented to the public in a way that is conclusive when in fact the science behind it is often very preliminary, very inconclusive.”

And then there’s pure idiocy. Just today a New York Times article interviewed bakers who are being forced to use processed shortening instead of natural butter in their products because there is an infinitesimal amount of trans fat naturally in butter.

... Experts

I’ve had dinner with a couple of doctors, at their homes, in the last couple of years. Each time, there was the little tub of margarine plonked in the middle of the table. “You’re still eating that stuff?” I would say accusingly. “What else?” they would ask. “How ‘bout good old butter?” I would suggest. “Cholesterol,” they would shrug their shoulders. Willett explains, “Unfortunately, as a physician back in the 1980s, I was telling people that they should replace butter with margarine because it was cholesterol free, and professional organizations like the American Heart Association were telling us as physicians that we should be promoting this. In reality, there was never any evidence that these margarines, that were high in trans fat, were any better than butter, and as it turned out, they were actually far worse than butter.”

Doctors are not nutritionists, and most nutritionists, themselves, must assume to be true what the American Heart Association and other professional health organizations tell them. I was in a meeting with a nutritionist recently, a very nice woman, who wanted to push an AHA recipe “a very healthy recipe, that uses a lot of rice and just a little chicken!” My suggestion that it would be a lot healthier if it had a lot of chicken and a little rice, a lot fewer refined carbohydrates and a lot more protein, was met with eye-widening shock, and perhaps pity at my ignorance.

It breaks my heart to see my friend The Doctor noshing down that chemical substance that is margarine in preference to the wholeness that is butter, and knowing that he is advising his patients to do the same.

... What to do, what to do?

What do we do about this fear of food foisted on us by the powers that be, which have, in the process, almost wrecked our food supply and our environment? I can only tell you what I’m doing. I’ve got a quarter of a grass-fed beef in my freezer. My favorite butcher told me I’d hate the taste of grass-fed beef. Well, guess what? It’s the most delicious beef I’ve eaten since I was twelve! I’m looking to buy half a pig that has been naturally foraging on what it naturally wants to eat, and has not been bred for lean. A friend is raising some free-range chickens for me. I’ll plant my garden soon, buy organic and natural produce and other foods from the Co-Op and the Farmers’ Market. I’m reading Enig, and Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions; I may even dig out my old copy of Adele Davis. I’m working with people to get a kitchen into the Co-Op so they can show people how to cook real food on-site, which will give them the confidence to buy and prepare local food. I’m talking it up. I’m weighing the advice that comes pouring in. And I have hope that if we begin to utilize our local cuisine, eating au terroir, our own foods grown on our own soil, we can begin to undo some of the harm that’s been caused by big business and government.

And maybe when I’m eighty I’ll be smart enough to be sixty.

This column was first published in the Rutland (Vermont) Herald May 01, 2007