Sometimes this is a food blog, because during COVID lockdown my only hobbies are growing food, cooking food, and talking at long length with Jon about what we’d like to cook for dinner today. This discussion often begins at nine in the morning, when Jon remembers that sports are cancelled and he truly has nothing more amusing to think about.
On the growing front, I stuck two Beit Alpha cucumber seeds in some soil about four weeks ago. I bought the seed packet because the photo on the front looked like the little Persian cukes we buy in the supermarket in plastic packages and I suspected I could probably grow them in a pot on my stoop. Within a week sprouts unfolded themselves from the soil, and soon the plants were spilling out vines and foot-wide leaves all over the ground. So I built them a trellis out of a couple of bamboo poles and cotton macrame cord, and the vines sent little tendrils like hands to wind around the string. At the point of this writing the vines are five feet long and considering engulfing our porch lamp. They are covered in bristles that stick in my fingertips like needles. The grabbing coils wind around the trellis, around other vines, around leaves, whatever they connect with. If I stood still long enough they would probably wrap me up in a cucumber hug.
Beneath the parasol leaves the vines have pushed out a forest of tissue-paper yellow flowers, first male flowers on skinny delicate stems, and then female flowers with tiny ideas of cucumbers at their bases. I could leave their fertilization to the pollinators, but I sometimes suspect pesticides have killed off all of the bees in this neighborhood. I try not to think about that too much, and am fertilizing my own cucumbers just to be safe: Whenever I can find a baby cucumber in the forest of spiny vines and leaves, I transfer a bit of pollen over to it from another flower. This is high-maintenance and obsessive of me, but I love my plants, and I have nothing better to do. I will probably leave the job to imaginary bees and cabbagewhite butterflies soon.
Whatever vegetables we cannot grow (which is most of them) we try to find at the farm market below the overpass, or get delivered from farms in the area. It’s summer and we end up with way too many fruits and vegetables but figuring out how to use them all without wasting a single thing feels a bit like a religious ritual at the moment. In a time when I don’t even know where my next roll of toilet paper will come from, I cannot bear the thought of wasting a plant that someone grew with their own two hands. I know how much work growing things takes now. You need lots of money, lots of time, and cooperation from things like the rain and bees, both of which are being driven to destruction by climate change. Are you in the mid-Atlantic? Have you been here long? Tell me, are these daily apocalyptic thunderstorms normal? I love them, but every day I wonder if we are all about to drown, or whether in 100 more years this good Earth will even be habitable anymore. When we poison the bees we poison ourselves, too. As far as I am concerned, there is no God that will save us from our own havoc; there are only the bees, the rain, the plants, and the delicate eternal cycles that got us all here—all the things we do not see that we will destroy anyway. Eat the rich, I say, and redistribute the fat corporate bodies they grew from the Earth without our permission! I wonder how many lumens or watts of sunlight those billionaires’ pendulous hordes of wealth is equivalent to, whether they got it from natural gas which is the heat-crushed bodies of Carboniferous ferns, or from the sweat off the backs of heart-beating wage slaves, or from some source so perverted you can no longer see the sunlight in it—believe me, it’s there. Everything we are or have is derived sunlight, or sunlight that a living body converted into something else. How much light are your billions worth, you shorn-headed Cavalli-suited dragons? How many sheaves of grain could you have grown with it? How many hungry people could you have fed?
Anyway, I have this driving pseudo-spiritual need to waste not one perfect weird vegetable. This turns dinner-making into not just a comforting 9 AM topic of conversation, but also a fun puzzle. This week the puzzle pieces were only two colors: purple and green. We received a produce box from local farmers, and I unpacked the paper-wrapped packages one by one like jewels. Crisp spicy arugula and butterhead lettuce with the roots still attached, skinny eggplants so dark with anthocyanins they were almost black, a bag full of ice-green banana peppers, a small magenta head of cabbage, a bunch of parsley with huge leaves like outstretched hands. And a fat bag full of purple beets stored since last fall, I could tell by their velvety yielding skins. The eternal gift of root vegetables that are already designed to sit somewhere cool and dark and underground, that will keep all their stored sugars safe for months and months until some hungry person finally needs to eat them. I hefted the bag in one hand, three pounds of beets easy. How many arugula salads with roasted beets and cheese can two people eat, I wondered? The 90s were over…wow, 20 years ago, yikes.
Our landlord texted right at that moment. She lives upstairs, owns an enormous Rhodesian ridgeback named Tiger, and often gives us gifts for no reason so I adore her. “We don’t eat beets but our produce share gave us some, would you like them?” she asked. “Absolutely,” I said. An embarrassment of riches! I thought. These beets were bright gold instead of jewel purple and still had their fresh greens attached. Too many beets. Summer is full of vegetable emergencies.
Luckily, soup is designed to handle most emergencies.
Chilled Beet Soup
If your home has been invaded by an enormous quantity of beets, roast them all at once. You will be much more likely to use them if they are sitting in your refrigerator in an edible state rather than their rock-imitating state. Do this by preheating your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, and finding a baking pan that will fit all of your beets in one layer—a Pyrex baking dish is perfect for this. Wash your beets, then lop off their stem and root ends and any weird hairy or rotten bits. Stand them all side by side on their ends in the baking dish. Drizzle them with a quantity of olive oil, salt, and pepper, then pour a scant inch of water around their feet in the dish. Put two bay leaves in the water for flavor, then tent the whole thing with a sheet of aluminum foil. When placed in the oven, this becomes a sauna that will steam your beets. No matter what you do, they take an absolute eternity to cook; start checking them at an hour by (carefully) removing the foil lid (I say carefully because it will belch out steam that will try to scald your wrists) and sliding a small sharp knife into the center of each beet. It should slip all the way through without complaint. If the beets complain, send them back into the sauna until they give up. Let the removed pan cool with the foil still on—you want them to steam as much as possible so their skins fall right off of them. Once cool, rub their skins off under a thin stream of water from the faucet. Now your home is still beset by beets, but at least they have been rendered useful.
This soup is my favorite way to eat beets at all, and it uses as many of them as you have. It is spiritually somewhere between the cold borscht described by Laurie Colwin in her delightful book More Home Cooking, and the tomato gazpacho that Jon made for me in the first summer of our courtship which convinced me that he is a person worth marrying. Cold soup is a thing that is undervalued in this country. Laurie Colwin advocates drinking it out of chilled glasses like beer.
Chop up your cooked beets fairly fine and tip them into a big bowl. However much beet flesh you have, chunk up about a quarter as much good crusty bread (stale sourdough is great) and soak it in water or stock for about 10 minutes. Put the soaked bread and its juices in the bowl with the beets, along with some chopped basil or other soft herbs, a few tablespoons of wine vinegar, black pepper, and an indecent amount of good olive oil and salt (no matter how much oil, vinegar, and salt you add now, you will probably need more later). Stir to combine this mixture. Working in batches if need be, blend this whole mess in either a traditional blender or with a stick blender in a straight-sided container. Keep a glass of icewater at hand both to sip from and to lubricate the soup. When done, taste and add more icewater, olive oil, salt and vinegar as needed. The salt and vinegar are most important; when you have enough of them, the soup will taste like a twanged guitar string. Trust me, I’m right about this.
Serve this with dollops of sour cream or full-fat yogurt, and with a tangy chopped vegetable salad to scatter on top. I made one out of a chopped reserved yellow beet, cherry tomatoes, a bit of sweet white onion, cucumber, parsley, lemon juice, olive oil and salt. You can also substitute tomatoes for the beets in this recipe and it will give you the best gazpacho you’ve ever had. This, maybe with a glass of incredibly cold slatey white wine, is a meal by itself when it’s too hot out to cook or eat anything else.
Enjoy, y’all. Eat beets! Eat the rich! Talk to you soon. -M