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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Bye-bye beets

Sigh! The baby beets are all grown up, and ready to leave their nest.

And just like that, spring — never too far beneath the surface, so close to the tropics — is on its way. Yes, this despite the current cold wave conditions blanketing the northern belt, hunkered in the shadow of the Himalayas — as it does every year.

But Old Man Winter's last stride forth, his deepest step into the low plains, has been taken. And now he's turned on his heel again, and begun his trudge uphill, retreating back up into the mountains that we call the 'Abode of Frost' (that's himalaya in Sanskrit).

In our northern capital of Delhi, where I write, January's popularly acknowledged to be The Cruellest Month — at least until June's scorching sun comes hammering down, 'negotiating' for the title with its searing heat waves. Just now, though, you'd be hard put to convince the shivering schoolchildren waiting for the bus on the street corner outside my door. Impossible that Basant, lord of spring, is about to warm their pinched fingers, soothe the reddened Rudolph noses peeking out of swathes of shawls and scarves. Nope, they'll wait for the colours of Holi to convince them, thanks very much, Ma'am!

But the market stalls know better, as do the trees in the park. The colours are already changing in the greengrocers' carts cycling door to door. And for those of us who like to cook by the season, it's the last few weeks to celebrate the cornucopia of the cold season. (No, those gorgeous salads won't last in our tropical heat either...)

And so it's bye-bye beets. We saw, I suspect, the last of this season's babies last week. If we see the bleeding purple hearts of beetroot again in the vegetable tray again, those will have more mature heads — the tough old biddies that are good for pickling in spears, staining the white daikon radish alongside. The perfect crunch-along with a flatter of khubz, hummous and slices of chicken doner off the rotisserie. But no, they're not the sweet bulbs that jostle together in my roasting tin in winter, brightening up the dark cave of the oven. Or plop into a pot of meaty stock to melt into a ruby-red bowl of borscht to warm our insides.

Which is exactly what I did to that last lot I bought. 

Roasted 'em, and souped them up! Then let the handsome dark head of purple cabbage escort them out to dinner, with a swirl of sour cream for romance. No, it's not quite the same creature whose steamy breath clouded the streets of Moscow back in 1979. This is just my version of a (Indo-)Russian fairytale on a salver.

I don't usually go to the trouble of cooking my root veg twice. But it it seems excessive, let me assure you the beets seemed to have mellowed in the oven, adding on a slightly caramel-ly layer to their sweetness.

Beetroot Borscht* with braised cabbage2 hearty servings or 4 dainty ones
750g baby beets, greens wrenched off*
1 whole head of garlic, pods separated but not peeled
1-2 spears of fresh rosemary (or 1 tsp the dried herb, crumbled)
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
about 2 tbsp olive oil
Sea salt flakes

1 tbsp olive oil
2 large red or yellow onions, sliced
2 brown sugar cubes1 litre beef stock (I confess we crumbled in a cube of Oxo)3-4 tbsp sour cream
for the cabbage:1 tsp oil
1 tsp cumin seeds1 small head of purple/red cabbage, shredded
Splash of cider vinegar

  1. Pile the beets — whole or split down the middle — into a roasting tin. Push the garlic pods and rosemary sprigs into gaps between the bulbs.
  2. Sprinkle the vinegar and oil on top, taking care to drench every last bit of beet. Get a kettle of hot water and splash some in, about a half inch deep. Scatter the sea salt over them. Tent with a sheet of foil.
  3. Roast in the oven at 220°C for 40 minutes to an hour, until a fork slides into the heart of a beet easily.
  4. Let them cool and slip them out of their shirts (though if you're going to puree rather than chop them, you could leave the peel on).
  5. Dice (if you mean to puree your borscht, like I did) or chop them up fine.
  6. Heat the oil and saute the onions till translucent, which takes me about 8-10 minutes on a medium heat.
  7. Crumble in the sugar cubes; pile in the beets and pan juices, but not the rosemary. Squeeze the garlic out of the pods and add them too.
  8. Stir it all up until they're all warm and friendly before adding the stock. Bring to the boil and let it simmer down by a third of its original volume.
  9. While the borscht cools, heat the oil with the cumin seeds, tempering them till the spice splutters and releases its own lovely aroma to temper the oil. Stir-fry the cabbage for 3-5 minutes, add the vinegar and cover for a couple more before removing from heat.
  10. Puree the borscht if you like, and stir in half the cream.
  11. Ladle into bowls, adding a mound of cabbage in the centre. Swirl through the remaining cream and serve warm.
This was calling out for the support of some dark grain. But the Boy-Who-Bakes has ruefully given up on coaxing the yeast into blossoming in this cold. So we followed our beet-y broth with a platter of buckwheat blini that the Boy (Who Evidently Also Cooks) popped out of his pancake griddle.

They were blobbed with thick, creamy yoghurt (the buckwheat wanted a sturdier companion than cream). Crowned with spoonfuls of briny, amber jewels of salmon roe 'caviar' that Boy's colleague (also known, imaginatively, as 'Boy' at work) smuggled out of Kazakhstan. And we thought that was a feast fit for any czar or emir! (But then, what do we know of royalty? We'd be just as happy pretending it was the peasant fare of the steppes or the shores of the Black Sea!)

* Although I didn't know it when I first made borscht a winter habit, apparently there are beet-free borschts as well worth exploring...!

** I like them tossed in the wok with a little vinegar, sugar and garlic, some cumin or paprika for a punch of spice, perhaps a little soy sauce. Or chopped into a warm rice salad.

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