red riot redux (beet and ricotta stuffed shells)

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

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40 days of hummus

I just realized that I started this new site in sync with the beginning of Lent. What was I thinking? Isn’t this supposed to be a time of renunciation (at least for those of certain faith of which I happen to be a part of)?

But before I could even think about what on earth a Lenten food blog might look like, my thoughts turned to what Lent is about in the positive. Perhaps this is just an elaborate justification for not giving anything up. Whatever it is, it makes me grateful, and I think that’s kind of the point.

We usually associate Lent with self-denial. But this time in the Christian year is not just about becoming vegetarian or denying yourself a few meals. While these things have played a role in Lent, so has teaching new believers and restoring drifted ones, inviting the poor into one’s home, and cultivating divine awareness through prayer and meditation.

The 6 Sundays during Lent aren’t even counted in the 40 days, but instead are termed “Mini Easter” celebrations. I like how in the midst of the solemn 40-day procession towards Good Friday, people found ways to savour the things of the Earth.

Maybe the rest of us could focus our 40 days on filling our kitchens and diets with more hospitality, generosity, creativity, and life. I am reminded that the word lent quite literally means spring. Green things are on the horizon, however frozen our world may now appear.

Driving home from church last night, the words spoken to me echo in my mind: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Then I got to thinking about what any normal person would think about on such an holy day. Hummus.

It’s a mediterranean spread made with chickpeas, but it also refers to the organic material derived from partial decay of plant and animal matter. Mmmm, mmm. That went with the “returning to dust” theme, didn’t it? So while I pondered whether I’ll end up in the carrot or beet row of someone’s future garden, I whipped up a couple batches of spreadable earthiness. And they all taste better than compost, I promise.

Given the persistent grayness that has descended upon this city and the fact that the book I’m reading (though exquisitely written) is also bleak and dismal, I decided to put some colour into my day via hummus. Inspired by the “beet this hummus” at the restaurant I worked at for some time, I decided to see what other hues I could transform the humble chickpea into.

I felt like a 5 year old with three new cans of play-dough. For the plain one, I added some ground cumin, chili powder, and turmeric. For the fushcia one, I boiled up some beets — you really don’t need much, even one quarter-sized slice will turn the hummus pink. I garnished it with black pepper which I thought went nicely with the bright colour. For the green one: boiled spinach along, a drizzle of pumpkin oil and basil.

Go ahead and experiment! (I tried adding black beans once and it turned out purple!) These “hummi” would be great for theme parties (St. Patrick’s day, Valentine’s) or just to spice up a dreary February day.

Basic Hummus

1 large can (1lb/13 oz) chickpeas, or 2 smaller ones, liquid reserved

1-2 cloves garlic, minced

2 T fresh squeezed lemon juice (ok ok, the bottled stuff will do)

1-2 T tahini paste (peanut butter will also do, but the flavour is not as subtle)

salt and pepper

Pour the liquid off the chickpeas, reserving it. Rinse off the peas. Place into an empty yogurt container, or other cylindrical container (or into the pitcher part of a blender. I like the hand blending method much better, though.) Add either 2 T of the reserved liquid, or 1 T of olive oil (the first is higher in sodium, the second in fat). Add the garlic, depending on how peppy you like your spread. Blend, moving the hand blender in an up and down motion. You will have to stop periodically (unplug!) and scrape around the blade to “help” the blender get to all the peas. Continue until you have a nice, creamy paste. Add the tahini paste and salt and pepper. Blend again.

Now for the fun. Add any of the following, according to your tastes! Plain yogurt (for extra creaminess, but keep in mind it won’t last as long in the fridge), cumin or curry powder, coriander, cinnamon, turmeric, basil, lemon zest, pumpkin oil, chili powder, boiled spinach leaves, cooked beets, cooked carrot, other beans, etc.

Serve with toasted pita chips, pretzels, and fresh veggies. Or, spread on burgers, sandwiches, and in pitas.