Salt of the Earth

Lately I’ve been appreciating my college classmates. They are all such good people. If they’re a lawyer, chances are it’s at Legal Aid. If they’re a therapist, they dropped everything and moved to New Orleans to counsel child Katrina victims. Heck, even my horrible ex-boyfriend of whom I have nothing kind to say about has somehow ended up working at Habitat for Humanity for years.

tacos

I have been thinking about this because a few weeks ago, a classmate of mine was killed in a car crash in Baltimore. Her name was Neely, and she was one of the best out of a group of wonderful classmates. She had devoted her career to informal Jewish education, including founding an LGBT program for Jewish teens in Baltimore.  She leaves behind her husband – another classmate of ours who’s now a rabbi – and three little girls.

I went to Seminary for college. We also attended secular university and learned words like hegemony and read The Iliad. But mostly, it was Seminary, so yes, I also have classmates who are now rabbis, Jewish camp directors and teachers. With everyone earning two degrees – some days started with Hebrew at 7:45AM and didn’t end til Music Humanities at 9PM – we weren’t on a meal plan. We had kitchens and cooked all our own meals. So when my college friends Carly and Mike (now married) came for a visit last week, Carly remarked, as I greeted her wearing an apron, that it seemed like not much had changed at all.

corn and mushroom and fixins

I was hosting during my first week back to work, so I wanted to make it really easy on myself. I served fish and vegetarian tacos. Whenever we have fish tacos it’s always the right choice, and they’re not a ton of work, either. The vegetarian tacos were a recipe from Modern Jewish Cooking: Recipes & Customs for Today’s Kitchen by Leah Koenig, given to me by my dad this past birthday. I’d had my eye on it, and had really come to enjoy Leah’s recipes found in many publications. It’s actually really strange that I don’t know her, as we have nearly 20 friends in common on Facebook, and a couple of her recipe testers for this cookbook are good, good friends of ours. People who show up on my blog are good friends with her.

As with most cookbooks, I’ve stuck to the vegetable recipes. I enjoyed the miso roasted asparagus back in April, as well as the garlic marinated zucchini and the roasted broccoli with shallots and lemon. I am strongly considering the potato leek kugel for Rosh Hashana. I also have my eye on the black bean and sweet potato chili. Some of her recipes are inspired by the cuisine of the Roman Jewish community, and she helpfully labels dishes for Shabbat dinner, Rosh Hashana and other holidays.

fish taco fixins

The vegetarian tacos in question comprised balsamic roasted mushrooms and corn, which could be a great side dish but served as a main dish when I followed Leah’s suggestion to wrap it in a warm tortilla and top it with “a little grated cheese, fresh baby spinach and sliced avocado.”

Dinner was delicious, but Lilli seemed a little off during the meal. Rich took her temperature and found she’d spiked a fever. As I flitted about, taking care of Bea, Mike and Carly silently got up and cleared the table. Mike stood and washed every single dish and pot and pan and loaded the dishwasher as Carly rummaged in my Tupperware cabinet and put away leftovers. She also offered to fold any laundry if I needed any help. We ended the meal with treats from Mike’s Pastry, which they’d picked up in Harvard Square.

Like I said, I went to college with great people.

Balsamic-Roasted Mushrooms and Corn from Modern Jewish Cooking by Leah Koenig

Leah compares the partnership of balsamic vinegar and cremini mushrooms to the one of peas and carrots: They just work well together. I love that they use fresh late summer corn. “Earthy and deeply flavored, with a hint of sweetness from the honey and roasted red onion, this dish makes a great side for steak, chicken or tofu.” Or, as I mentioned earlier, do as we did, and wrap it in a warm tortilla and top it with a little grated cheese, fresh baby spinach, and sliced avocado.

Although Leah has you drizzle the balsamic mixture on top of the vegetables, as written here, I just tossed everything in an enormous mixing bowl with my hands.

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

1/3 cup/80ml balsamic vinegar

1/3 cup/80ml soy sauce or tamari

1/3 cup/80ml extra-virgin olive oil

2 Tablespoons honey

4 garlic cloves, minced or pushed through a press

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 ½ lb/680 g cremini mushrooms, stemmed and halved or quartered (if large)

2 small red onions, halved through the root and cut into ¼-in/6mm slices

2 ears sweet corn, kernels removed, or 1 ¼ cups/205 g thawed frozen corn kernels

Freshly ground black pepper

2 Tablespoons chopped fresh mint or flat-leaf parsley (I skipped both these herbs, given the components of the rest of the meal)

Directions

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C and line two large rimmed baking sheets with aluminum foil.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the vinegar, soy sauce, olive oil, honey, garlic and cayenne.

Divide the mushrooms, onions, and corn evenly between the prepared baking sheets. Drizzle each vegetable mixture with half of the vinegar mixture and gently toss with tongs to coat. Season with pepper. Roast, stirring once, until soft and tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Using tongs (I used a slotted spoon) transfer the vegetables to a serving platter or bowl; pour over 1 to 2 tablespoons of the cooking liquid and discard the rest. While still warm, toss with the mint and serve.

Notes on our fish tacos

The reason this is such a fast weeknight meal is because all of the ingredients pull together quickly and can also be made beforehand.

Shredded cabbage

Thin discs of radish

Sprigs of cilantro

Pickled onions from Ultimate Nachos by Lee Frank & Rachel Anderson

And crema, also from Ultimate Nachos – I halved the entire recipes

Basic Crema

1 cup sour cream

1 cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon salt

In a small bowl, mix all of the ingredients together.

Cover with plastic wrap and allow to sit at room temperature for about 1 hour.

If not using right away, keep the crema covered and store in the refrigerator. Crema will keep for as long as the expiration dates stated on the back of the sour cream and heavy cream. Before using it, bring the crema back to room temperature.

I actually  have a trick for the fish which works reasonably well. I grab a few frozen fillets of cod from Costco that I keep on hand, fill a sided pan with water, and poach the frozen fish in the pan for about 10 minutes. Because you’re going to be shredding the fish, it doesn’t have to be pretty at all. Remove the fish using a slotted spoon.

To serve, place fish, shredded cabbage, radish discs, pickled onion, drizzled with crema and sprigs of cilantro in a small tortilla. If you have limes, slice and serve on the side.

Second Annual Cambridge Guac Off

The competition was fierce at the Second Annual Cambridge Guac Off this past weekend. I was lucky enough to be invited back to help judge the competition, and what a contest it was! There were a dozen different entries for guests and contestants to sample, and a stock pot full of some of the most potent sangria I have ever overindulged in. Food processors whirled and mortar and pestles ground away at the ripe green fruits that had been tossed with cilantro, garlic and lime juice.

Secret ingredients abounded this year. Some, like the Rick Bayless-inspired pepitas, queso fresco and jalapeno entry, used traditional Mexican flavors. Less so was the blue cheese which found its way into the second place entry. And while some protested the awarding of first place to a pesto-infused guacamole, I for one embraced this next step in dip evolution. Rounding out the entries was a fresh mango salsa and a tequila-spiked avocado sorbet.

The Guac Off winners were kind enough to share their recipes with Cheap Beets. In the style of so many great home cooks, measuring spoons were set aside and the final dips were done to taste. I’ve assured Matt, Calvin, Rachel and Isabelle not to worry about those details, and that the recipes will speak for themselves.

For more pictures of the event, check out Calvin’s Flickr page.

First place: Pesto-Guacamole by Matt Frank

Ingredients

4 Ripe avocados

1 unripe avocado

1 medium red onion

Paprika

Sea Salt

Pepper

Cilantro flakes

Basil flakes

Lime juice

Tabasco sauce

Jalapeno paste (they sell it in a tube)

Fresh garlic

Garlic powder

Onion powder

Olive oil

Notes on the pesto: Trader Joe’s brand or homemade will work. (The winning recipe had homemade, but the trial run used Trader Joe’s) Any traditional pesto should do.

Directions

Peel and cut the unripe avocado into one inch pieces. Halve the red onion, and dice one half into small pieces.  Peel the garlic clove. Toss all three in a mix of light olive oil, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, basil flakes, cilantro flakes, tabasco sauce, lime juice, sea salt and pepper. Bake on the top rack of a 475 degree oven for approximately 20 minutes.

Fork mash the baked avocado and garlic clove into a paste. In a separate bowl, fork mash the four ripe avocados, and then add the mashed avocado paste and the jalapeno paste. Mix. Add some Tabasco sauce, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, lime juice and basil flakes and mix. Add a tablespoon of basil pesto. Mix. Taste, add more pesto and tabasco sauce as needed, taking care not to offset the balance. Additional spicing should be done judiciously.

Once the guacamole is properly flavored, add the baked red onion, and half of the other remaining raw onion. Gently fold into the guacamole, making sure to distribute evenly without breaking it up.

Second Place: Simple Guacamole (with a secret ingredient) by Rachel Linso and Calvin Metcalf
In a large bowl, mix together

4 very ripe avocados

1/2 can roasted diced jalapenos (approximately 1/2 Tablespoon)

1/2 yellow onion, diced

Nice-sized hunk of blue cheese

Pepper to taste

Third Place: Roasted Jalapeno and Roasted Corn Guacamole by Isabelle Weyl

The night before you want to serve this guacamole, roast a jalapeno pepper, deseed, and slice into thin strips. Shuck two ears of corn, salt and coat in olive oil. Wrap in tinfoil and roast in a 350 degree oven for about 30 minutes. Remove corn from the cob and add to the bowl containing the strips of roasted jalapeno. Refrigerate overnight.

When ready to prepare and serve the guacamole, bring the corn and pepper mix to room temperature, mash 5 smallish avocados with 3 dashes of Tabasco sauce and a hearty spoonful of sour cream.

Fire and Ice

Rocket pops awaiting lift-off. Houston, we have a problem...

I had a plan for this blog post, but life got in the way. It was, and still is, going to be about paletas, Mexican ice pops which, according to a trendologist (yes, that’s an actual job) I profiled last fall, are going to be the next big thing. I hadn’t thought much about them until my neighbor told me about a paletas cookbook she’d come across. I borrowed the book, found a recipe that I wanted to make and began composing my post. I’d even made the ice pops, photographed and served them, to good reviews, as dessert last Sunday night.

But after we bid adieu to our dinner guests and as Rich was in the kitchen cleaning up, I came across this story via Facebook. Our friend Brian Levinson, one of the most important people in the world to me, had been in a horrible fire at his apartment in Queens. He and his childhood friend Eric were (and still are) in the burn unit at New York-Presbyterian hospital.

So instead of writing this blog post, we went to sleep as well as we could, and then in the morning we set out for New York City. Rich had to go back to Boston that night, but I ended up staying the week. I’d been meaning to visit Brian and other friends in New York for vacation this summer, but this was obviously not what I’d had in mind.

Now, I don’t want to be a total downer about this. Brian was in excellent spirits when we got to him and throughout the week. He basically held court in the burn unit, to the mild annoyance of his nurses, who would have preferred if he’d kept his oxygen mask on instead of cracking wise. In his honor, I subbed on his trivia team at the weekly game at Pete’s Candy Store in Williamsburg. Our team name: Fryin’ Levinson. (We won.)

Eventually Friday came around and it was time to start back to Boston. I thought about what I’d written so far for this blog post, but, in all due respect to trendology, it seemed a little trite. Everything seemed a little trite after seeing what my friend was going through. Feeling down, I ended up wandering into the Strand Book Store before catching my bus to Boston. I hadn’t been to the Strand in years, even though it was one of my regular haunts when I lived there. Old habits die hard, and without even thinking about it, I found myself in the cookbook section. And there, tucked into the dessert section, I came across the very same paletas cookbook I’d borrowed from my neighbor. I think it was the universe’s way of calling me back to work.

So get well, soon, Brian and Eric. If you want to help Eric, who is a circus performer and doesn’t have health insurance, check out this benefit event page.

Paletas de Aguacate: Avocado Ice Pops, from Paletas: Authentic Recipes for Mexican Ice Pops, Shaved Ice & Aguas Frescas by Fany Gerson

Gerson, one of the country’s most authoritative voices on Mexican sweets, is the owner of La Newyorkina, a Mexican frozen treats and sweets business. When I first borrowed her book from my neighbor, I made note of a few pops that tickled my fancy: spicy pineapple; sour cream, cherry and tequila. But when I saw the recipe for the paletas de aguacate, or avocado ice pops, I knew they had to be made that afternoon.

The recipe is very easy: a mix of simple syrup, fresh lime juice and avocado, all whirled up in a blender. The result is more sweet than savory, which might surprise a lot of avocado lovers out there. While most of us in the United States associate avocado with tortilla chips, avocados also have a sweet side and appear in desserts such as avocado milkshakes in places like the Philippines.

This paleta is sweet, creamy and 100% vegan.

Ingredients

1 cup water

1/2 cup sugar

2 small ripe avocados

Pinch of salt

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice

Directions

Combine the water and sugar in a small saucepan and cook over medium-high heat, stirring, until the mixture comes to a boil and the sugar has dissolved. Let cool to room temperature.

Cut the avocados in half lengthwise. Remove the pit and scoop the flesh into a blender, along with the cooled syrup and salt. Blend until smooth, scraping the sides as needed. Add the lime juice and blend until combined.

If using conventional molds, divide the mixture among the molds, snap on the lid, and freeze until solid, about 5 hours. If using glasses or other unconventional molds, freeze until the pops are beginning to set (1 1/2 to 2 hours), then insert the sticks and freeze until solid, 4 to 5 hours. If using an instant pop maker, follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Gerson claims this makes 8 to 10 pops. It made 6 in my wacky rocket ship molds.

Blast off! Get well soon, Brian and Eric.