My last dinner in the mountains called for something special. Something with a little more preparation than what I’d been eating during my two-week sabbatical. Yes, crackers and cheese will satiate. Sure, four days of leftovers will keep you alive. But as great as convenient meals are, certain times remain where food transcends its usefulness and becomes something more.
I wanted that. I had eaten well, but I wanted more.
Food is, thankfully, more than filling our bellies. And while I realize that not everyone has the luxury of seeing it this way, I think that too often the people who DO have the chance to, don’t. It sounds convoluted but maybe if we could, as a culture, learn to revere food a little more, others could have enough for a change. It’s a leap of logic, but I believe strongly that with appreciation comes respect, and with respect, stewardship. If we were better stewards of the bounty of Earth and her creatures, maybe others could go to bed with full bellies too.
It’s all the beet’s fault, getting me off on this tangent. Yes, the scruffy little beta vulgaris has put me up to this, with its surprising flesh and juice that always makes me think I cut myself. Three little beetroots staring back at me from my farmer’s market sack; unlikely reminders of the value of food beyond accomplice to survival.
I wanted to make something worth eating under that 7 o’clock summer sky, clear as the eyes of a child. Something that involved some boiling, peeling, slicing, pureeing, grating, whisking and stuffing. Something that was not meticulously followed from a book that I could put my stamp on, make my own. And while I must give credit where credit is due and cite my sources, the final product ended up feeling as though it was truly mine.
Is this not how we live? Piecing together this and that, sayings and gestures we’ve responded to in others, expressions and beliefs we’ve found are magnets to our hearts. I am this and that and this thing too. I come from here and from there. So too are the meals I take the most pleasure in.
Awhile ago, my friend over at fx cuisine humbly shared his beetroot pasta disaster with the world. I admired his honesty of imperfection, and was intrigued by the beety creature he felt he wasn’t quite able to bring to life. Being already firmly rooted in beet-love, it was easy to convince myself to try out his dish. Besides, it’s not often that I indulge that most basic of human rights to creamy, cheesy pasta topped with crispy Parmesan.
The heading on fx’s post read “can you make something out of it?” I’m still not sure if this was an invitation for his readers to try their hands at the dish or just an aesthetic inquiry, but I took it as the former. Off I went, scheming and dreaming, determined to effect the harmonious reunion of beets, ricotta and pasta upon my plate. And that’s where 10 years of part-time jobs in restaurants came in handy. When I first started at fude, a funky Winnipeg bistro, we had a popular dish called the Red Riot. It was crab-stuffed pasta shells with a rosé sauce — aka a tomato-cream. A dish I hadn’t thought about in years came back to me full-force, with the perfect blueprint for my new creation.
Off to work I went, not sure how it would end up, but enjoying every minute of trying. The cheerful bubbling of the water, reddening more and more every minute as the beets deepened into their characteristic hue. Guiltlessly whirling whole-milk ricotta into beet puree, and watching it take on the color of a sunset or an embarrassed cheek. Tossing in handfuls of zippy Parmesan, grating fresh nutmeg for the first time in my life (thanks to the well-stocked cupboards where I was staying), spooning the mixture into pre-cooked jumbo pasta shells and watching the edges curl over as if each concealed a secret.
I sat down under that June sky and pressed my fork into the first shell. Pink began to escape the shell, picking up just a hint of the balsamic glaze I had drizzled over the plate. Rescuing it to my fork, I sampled my creation. It’s not often I’m truly blown away by food, especially not my own. (Honestly, I’ve gotten so picky!) But this, my friends, was pure delight wrapped in a pasta shell, each bite containing music and the glint of distant lands and the best things of the earth.
And for all of you who made it to the bottom of this post, I offer a gift from author Tom Robbins, whose passage on my favorite root might just be the best bit of food writing I’ve come across yet:
The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon-boat stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once connected the moon to the Earth now a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies. ~Tom Robbins
Red Riot Redux
5 medium beets (or 6-7 small)
1 lb (500 gr) ricotta cheese (I’m going to tell you to use whole milk ricotta, but do what you will)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for topping
freshly grated nutmeg, to taste (maybe this was the secret ingredient! Use pre-ground if you need to)
fresh cracked pepper, to taste
20-25 Jumbo pasta shells (or manicotti)
Topping: 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese mixed with 1/2 cup almond meal or bread crumbs
- First, cook your beets. The two most common ways of doing this are boiling and roasting. Some argue that boiling deprives beets of their true flavor, so for maximum earthiness, roast in a foil-covered baking pan with a little water in the bottom at 425 degrees for 30-40 minutes (until easily pierced with a knife.) If you wish to boil, leave the stems intact to stop the redness from escaping into the water. Boil in salted water and then reduce to a simmer for 30-40 minutes. Cool slightly, and slip off the skins. Dice.
- Meanwhile, cook your pasta shells or manicotti according to the package directions, usually about 12 minutes for an al-dente texture. Drain and set aside.
- When the beets are cooled and skinned, combine them in a blender (or use a bowl and a hand blender) with the egg and ricotta cheese. Blend until smooth, or the consistency of a thin hummus. Add the grated Parmesan cheese, fresh nutmeg (I used about 1/8 tsp) and pepper. Chill.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Ladle a cup of the beet mixture thinly into the baking dish. Set your bowl of cooked shells next to your bowl of beet mixture. Spoon the beet and ricotta mixture into each shell, nestling the stuffed shells next to each other securely on top of the layer of sauce. When each shell has been stuffed, choose your topping. I had some ground almond meal around, which I mixed with Parmesan cheese for a nice nutty crispy topping, but bread crumbs and Parmesan would also be good.
- Cover (with lid or foil) and bake at 350 for 40 minutes. Broil for another 2-3 minutes, until the topping is lightly browned and crisped. Serve family-style, or on plates drizzled with balsamic glaze and garnish with fresh rosemary.
with kudos to fxcuisine and fude restauarant