When I was reaching for a plastic bag in the produce section at Metro Market the other day, I was suddenly struck by an absurdity. Printed on the bag, in big green letters, was “5 a day!” The store was cheerfully exorting customers to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
Really? Do people really need to be reminded of this? I forget, but I guess we Americans do need the reminder. Or more likely, the teaching. I remember an isolated moment from the Oprah show sometime last year. I don’t remember what the show topic was, because I could only remember this moment, frozen in horror: a woman in the audience admitted that she ate mostly fast food, all week long. And the only vegetable she ever ate was the potatoes in the french fries. And she wondered why suffered such bad constipation? I stared at the television set in cringing embarrassment. Not for myself, but for our entire culture. What are we doing to ourselves? Where have we gone wrong? Today, a dear friend of mine was telling me about her Thanksgiving weekend, and she said, “In four days of eating, there wasn’t one green.” I’m sure hers wasn’t an isolated case. But how did we become this bad? Why do we need to be cajoled to eat our vegetables, when they can be so damned good?
I know I don’t. I thrive on vegetables and live on fruit. During the summer, I gorge on fresh rasberries, let the peach juice dribble down my chin, walk through Discovery Park with blackberry juice staining my fingers dark purple, and make watermelon sorbet from scratch, spontaneously. But during the autumn and winter, I live on vegetables.
I ate vegetables all weekend long, as I was trying to recover from my unexpected glutenized Thanksgiving Day feast. Without knowing why, when I’m feeling under the weather from hidden gluten, I turn back to vegetables. I made garlic-buttermilk-smoked cheddar mashed potatoes on Saturday night. (Even if you think you had your fill of mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving, you need some of these.) Brussel sprouts hash, with fresh chicken stock, lemon juice, and poppy seeds, a la Molly. When my friend Monica came over on Saturday afternoon, for a long, lovely visit, I set a mushroom sautee in front of her: chanterelles, criminis, and Italian parsley, all done in a touch of olive oil, on high heat. God, the depth of it. I flash sauteed green beans with almond slivers and sea salt. Fresh spinach. Salads with pomegranate seeds. Carrots. Everything fresh and redolent of health.
And then there was butternut squash. I adore butternut squash. In fact, I ate roated butternut squash every day of the four-day weekend. Making that rich flesh dense with sweetness and orange goodness is so easy. Simply cut the beige-skinned gourd into chunks, remove the seeds, sprinkle with good olive oil, a bit of smoked paprika, and sea salt. Then, throw it into a 400° oven for half an hour or so, until the chunks of pale-orange flesh yield to the touch, soft and ready for eating. Take it out of the oven, let it cool, then start peeling back the skin with your fork. Why would you need anything else?
If you’ve grown tired of eating it plain, try some butternut squash soup, with onions, pears, dark cider, a vanilla bean, and half and half. (Apparently, I live almost entirely on Molly’s recipes.) Top it with a bit of grated gruyere, and you don’t need to eat anything else. I made this last soup from Orangette last night, and I don’t need to cook anything else for days. Singing of autumn and far-reaching possibilities, the soup only darkens every day, the layers of taste reaching farther down onto the tongue, sweetness, a bit of piquant bite, the onions flooding the taste buds, and everything right with the world.
Really, who could have a problem with vegetables?
Well, I did, when I was a kid. And I think that’s where most of us have stayed: stubbornly in place. Learning to love vegetables takes an open mind, a willingness to change. For some people, that comes slowly. I didn’t learn to like tomatoes until I was in the least likely place, a pub in south Surrey, in England, in 1982. And this after I had been tempted with fresh, juicy tomatoes in southern California, all my life. It took me until I was sixteen, with a soggy tomato in front of me, until I thought, “Ahh, I like this.” And I haven’t been able to stop since. I can’t imagine my life now without tomatoes.
Still, during my entire adulthood, people have asked me, “Are there any vegetables you don’t like?” Well, yes, I’d say. There are. And I’d rattle them off, like scripture off the tongue, my trinity: cauliflower, beets, and lima beans. Blech.
This was, as far as I was concerned, sacrosanct. Why change now? There are plenty of vegetables for me to make. No need to like them all.
But that’s what I love about this gluten-free diagnosis. Instead of being a closure, it has opened me up so entirely that I feel like a different person now. And I like this one even more. With restrictions in food necessary for my health, why shut down on everything else? Why not try them?
If you’ve been reading, you know that this is the autumn I learned to love cauliflower. Not just accept it, or like it, but love it. It turns out the trick is roasting. Whether it’s with smoked paprika and cooa powder, or olive oil and sea salt, in indiviual florets or sliced thin, cauliflower just coos to me now. I see it in the store and head toward it. When I was forced to eat it raw, or boiled, I turned out my tongue and said blech. Now, I’ve changed.
But beets? Come on, those things are horrible. My mother loved pickled, canned beets when I was a kid, and she’d try to push them on every salad I ate. Oh no. Canned beets really just shouldn’t exist. It was the smell that always made me want to retch. Something of loamy earth, covered up by syurpy sweetness. A sharp blow to the nose. And the flubby texture, the bright-pink color, the tang it left in the back of the throat. Blech.
Over the past years, people I love have tried to convince me I need to like beets. Daniel roasts them at nearly every party, and lays them out in spectacular displays, like his garden. I nod and smile, and agree to nibble on one. And even though they clearly taste different than those canned monstrosities, the wave of memory always overpowered me. And I’d put them down. I’d try. I would. But I just couldn’t do it.
Couldn’t I just not like beets?
Last week, my friend Pete came over for lunch, and he brought me food presents. Organic potatoes he’d picked up at the farmers’ market. Scallions from his garden. And two beets he’d plucked from the earth that morning. Sweetness. Now, the potatoes? Gorgeous. They deserve their own post, and that they will have. I love those little tubers like my own life. And there are so many ways to make them. And some of the ones Pete brought me were bright pink inside. Of course I ate those right away. The scallions? Lovely and languid and clearly home grown, because they didn’t look like neat little soldiers bundled up with a rubber band. Those I took with me to Thanksgiving and slipped them into the ill-fated gluten-free stuffing. Still, that wasn’t the scallions’ fault. And what I did taste of it, the scallions made a difference. But the beets? i didn’t have the heart to tell him how much I loathe beets. I just smiled and said thank you. Took that picture of them laying on the table. And then forgot them for the rest of the week.
But on Saturday afternoon, feeling gripy in the belly and woefully low on energy, I decided to roast some more butternut squash. In its softness and wonderful density of flavor, it helped me through the worst of the gluten-induced woes of the weekend. And on a whim, I decided to roast the two beets along with it. I peeled off the thick skins, watched the juices stain my fingers red, and warded away the bad memories of the smell. I massaged them with meyer lemon olive oil and good herbed sea salt. And then I set them in a 400° oven, along with the squash. About half an hour later, when the squash was soft and sizzling, the beets were more tender, but entirely soft. I took them out anyway, then set them aside.
Later, after Monica had left, and the beets were no longer hot, I sliced them up, on a whim. They looked so lovely, cut thick, their dark red flesh gleaming. That afternoon, I had made up a new version of the Cafe Flora goat cheese marinade, but this time with tomato vinegar and cilantro, instead of balsamic and basil. And so I served myself some thick, roasted beet slices, like crackers, with acrid, gorgeous goat cheese. Ah god. I could feel years of resistance slipping from my shoulders. I gobbled up both beets in five minutes flat. I’m never looking back.
Okay, I can change. I now officially like beets.
What’s next? Lima beans?
ROASTED BEETS WITH MEYER LEMON OLIVE OIL
Meyer lemons are a gift of the gods. Actually, they come from China, originally. (If you’d like to know more about them, read this spiffy little interview from the wonderful The Splendid Table. Chefs have known about them for decades, but they’re only entering the public consciousness in the past five to ten years. Honestly, they’re one of my favorite fruits, and we’re entering Meyer lemon season right now. Watch for recipes redolent of them here, soon. But even in the off-season, there is Meyer lemon olive oil. I’ve been buying mine from Chefshop.com, and I’ve been spreading it on everything I can imagine. Imagine roasted chicken with this. Ach, du lieber. Buy some today.
3 tablespoons Meyer lemon olive oil
1 tablespoon good herbed sea salt, like Vignalta
fresh cracked pepper to taste
°Peel the skins from the beets, taking care to save as much of the flesh as possible.
°Massage the olive oil on the beets, slowly, being sure to cover every part of the flesh.
°Sprinkle the beets with sea salt and pepper.
°Slip the beets into the a pre-heated 400° oven. Cook for about half an hour, or until the beets are tender without being too soft.
°When they have cooled, slightly, slice them, thickly. Top with your favorite goat cheese. I used goat cheese, tomatoes, capers, garlic, tomato vinegar, olive oil, and cilantro. The cilantro cuts the inherent sweetness of the beets beautifullly.