My last dinner in the mountains called for something a little more special than what I’d been eating during my two-week sabbatical. Sure, four days of leftovers will keep you alive. But as great as convenient meals are, sometime food should transcend its usefulness to become something more.
I had eaten well, but I wanted more.
While I realize that not everyone has the luxury of seeing food as aesthetic pleasure, I think that unfortunately, the people who do miss the chance. If we could learn to revere food, maybe others would have enough. A leap of logic, maybe, but I believe that appreciation precedes respect, and respect, stewardship.
I blame beets, the scruffy little beta vulgaris for the tangent. Three little beetroots staring back at me from my farmer’s market sack. Unlikely reminders that food is more than just an accomplice to survival.
I wanted to make something worth eating under that evening summer sky. Something that involved boiling, peeling, slicing, grating, stuffing. Something that I could call my own. And while I must cite my sources, the final product ended up something I could take credit for.
As it turns out, the meals I take the most pleasure in are the pieced-together ones, like life. Sayings and memories, beliefs that stick to us like magnets.
Awhile ago fx cuisine humbly shared his beetroot pasta disaster. Being already firmly rooted in beet-love, it was easy to convince myself to try out his dish. The heading on his post read “can YOU make something out of it?” Determined to reunite beets, ricotta, and pasta together in harmony, I pulled from my 10 years of part-time work in restaurants: When I first started at fude, a funky Winnipeg bistro, we had a popular dish called Red Riot: Crab-stuffed pasta shells with a rosé (tomato cream) sauce. A dish I hadn’t thought about in years became a blueprint for my new creation.
Off to work I went: The cheerful bubbling of water, reddening with each passing minute as the beets cooked. Guiltlessly whirling whole-milk ricotta and cooked beets into a puree, and watching it take on the color of an embarrassed cheek. Tossing in handfuls of Parmesan, grating fresh nutmeg for the first time in my life, spooning the mixture into pre-cooked pasta shells, and watching the edges curl 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, picking up just a hint of the balsamic glaze I had drizzled over the plate. It’s not often I’m truly blown away by my own creations, but this was a new story.
In closing, 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.”
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