Wednesday, October 31

Beauty of the Beets

I love to cook. I love to emerge from the kitchen with a well-balanced and nicely plated meal, of course, but my pleasure in cooking doesn't just come from the "ta da!" moment of serving the finished dish. Like many things in life, it's the process and not the end result that provides the most moments of simple happiness.

For me, those moments come from the uncontrived beauty of the different foods I'm preparing. The colours and textures of the ingredients rival that of any artist's palette. The patterns, shapes, gloss and viscosity of the (literally) raw materials contribute to the final masterpiece but are also appreciated as individual works of art.

Perhaps the best example of this is the humble beet. It's certainly one of the most vibrant examples. It doesn't look all that impressive when you pull a beet from a produce bag, the dull skin a dusty purple-grey. But peel the skin off and slice into the vegetable and it reveals a deep ruby interior and a hint of brilliant juice. Many recipes involving beets recommend wearing gloves to avoid staining your hands. But I don't mind magenta fingers and cutting boards. They can be washed. Meanwhile, the beet juice on my white cutting board is like an abstract painting ready to hang on a wall.

Of course the other thing I love about beets is they are delicious! I didn't like beets when I was younger. The only way I had ever tried them was pickled or boiled and I found them, well, bleh. It wasn't until I tried them roasted that I fell for them, and fell hard. Roasting intensifies the natural sweetness of the beets and gives them a great, slightly chewy texture.

Sometimes I peel the beets and cut them into thick wedges, sometimes into small dice, sometimes sliced into rounds or half-moons.

With wedges or dice, I toss them in a ceramic baking dish (a snug fitting single layer, more or less) and stir in olive oil, salt, pepper, herbs or spices, and sometimes add a good splash of balsamic vinegar or a sprinkle of brown sugar, plus enough water or other liquid (orange juice is nice) to just cover the bottom of the baking dish. I cover the dish tightly with foil and roast, stirring occasionally, until the beets are tender, about an hour depending on the size of the pieces and the oven temperature (anywhere from 350-450°F depending on what else I'm cooking). I remove the foil and finish them uncovered to cook off any liquid and allow them to caramelize a bit. Wedges are lovely as a side dish on their own or mixed in with other vegetables. Diced beets make a for a nice garnish, tumbled over a crescent of roasted squash or a raft of green beans.

Sliced beets are quicker to roast and are delicious straight up or in this beautiful salad. You'll feel like a real artist mixing pigments as you create the salad. When you toss the red cabbage, onion and beets with the dressing, the acids in the vinaigrette react with the flavin in the cabbage to turn it a bright red-pink. Add some green arugula and stark white cheese for contrast, and you've got a real work of art to behold and share.

Ruby Salad
Serves 6 to 8.
Adapted from Fine Cooking magazine.
This is a vibrant starter or side and the perfect way to add bold colour and tastes to an autumn dinner.

For the beets: 
5 or 6 medium-small beets, peeled and sliced 1/4" to 1/2" thick
1 tablespoon olive oil
coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the vinaigrette: 
1 tablespoon dijon mustard
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

For the salad: 
4 cups thinly sliced red cabbage (from 1/2 large head)
1 medium red onion, halved and thinly sliced
2 to 3 cups baby arugula
crumbled goat cheese
toasted walnuts (optional)

Roast the beets: 
Preheat oven to 400°F. Line a large rimmed baking sheet (or two medium) with parchment paper.

Toss the beets, olive oil and a pinch each of salt and pepper to coat. Distribute the beets in a single layer, not touching, on the prepared baking sheets. Roast for 15 minutes, flip the beets over and return to the oven. Continue roasting until tender, about 10-15 minutes longer depending on the thickness of the slices. Let cool on a rack until moderately warm or room temperature. The beets can be roasted a day ahead and refrigerated but bring to room temperature or heat lightly before adding to the salad.

Make the vinaigrette:
Whisk together the mustard, vinegar, lemon juice, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Slowly whisk in the oil.

Make the salad:
Combine the cabbage and onion in a large bowl and set aside. Up to an hour before serving, add the beet wedges to the cabbage and onions and about half of the vinaigrette. Toss gently and admire the colour.

Just before serving, you can toss the arugula with a small amount of dressing -- just enough to give the greens a bit of gloss -- or leave the arugula undressed. Taste the ruby salad and add more vinaigrette or salt if needed.

To serve: 
Mound the ruby salad on plates and surround with some arugula leaves (alternatively, you can distribute dressed arugula on the plates first and top with the ruby salad). Finish by sprinkling crumbled goat cheese and walnuts, if using, over top. Serve immediately.

Friday, October 19

Golden Encore in the Almaguin Highlands

Fern Glen Inn •

Here we are in late October and the red maple leaves have fallen from the trees. You might think this means the end of fall colours for the season. Think again.

The Golden Encore is underway in the Almaguin Highlands and in parts of Muskoka and the eastern side of Algonquin Park. This is when the maples have finished their big colourful number and the tamaracks, birches and aspen take centre stage to show off their brilliant gold and yellow hues. Set against a backdrop of dark green conifers and deep blue sky, the result is striking.

Throughout the spring and summer months, tamaracks look like evergreen trees, easily mistaken for pine or balsam. But in the fall, usually around mid-October, their needles begin to turn golden yellow before falling like deciduous leaves. The trees spend the winter looking like barren spikes before awakening in the spring with fresh green needles.

Driving through the region at this time of year, we're amazed at the vast tracks of tamaracks that we simply don't notice otherwise. It's another facet of the forests around us, and it's timed perfectly for us to appreciate it -- a last bright blast of colour before the winter sets in, a swan song of the season. I hope you enjoy the show as much as we do.

Read more about the Golden Encore here;

and the Turning of the Tamaracks here.

Tuesday, October 2

Best of the Best

Fern Glen Inn •

A lot of people tell us that autumn is their favourite season, the best time of year to get out of the city and into the forest -- to explore the trails of Algonquin Park, the hills of the Almaguin Highlands, and the vistas of Muskoka.

Well, if fall is the best season of the year, then this year is the best of the best. Everyone is saying that this year the fall colours are the reddest, more vibrant and full ever. It's the eighth autumn that Jim and I have lived here so we don't have all that many years to compare it to, but folks who have lived in the region their entire lives are saying they've never seen anything like it.

The views from the back roads, the highways and the hiking trails are breathtaking. As I drive or walk along I am rendered speechless, and that's no small task! So I'll stop trying to come up with words to describe the awesomeness around me and leave it to the photos to speak for me...