Friday, January 24, 2014

Beets Roasted on Coffee Beans

Red and Golden Beets on Coffee Beans before Roasting
Photograph by A. Schloss
It appeared mysteriously spartan on the menu at Coi, Daniel Patterson’s ashram for food in San Francisco’s North Beach: “Carrots/Coffee.” What did it mean? It turned out to be genius—sweet, smoky, and earthy genius. Pencil-thin carrots were baked on a bed of coffee beans that warm gently, releasing their oils. This unexpected dish celebrated all the advantages of slow cooking: the coffee fumes gradually infuse the vegetable, creating an ephemeral sensation of something roasted that one can identify as “coffee” only after the tongue whispers to the brain. The carrots appear pristine, freshly harvested, with none of the raggy bloat that plagues the surface of boiled carrots, and yet their interior yields  as if they had simmered softly for hours .

Of course I recognize that roasting vegetables on whole coffee beans (original recipe is on page 51 of Cooking Slow) is eccentric. Folks worry about caffeine (decaf is preferred), can't imagine what coffee oil tastes like, and not everyone loves cooked carrots, so I decided for the purposes of this riff to switch vegetables to the penultimate vegan candidate for roasting - beets - and morph it with another Cooking Slow recipe for Slow Baked Beets with Orange Gremolata (page 55). I think the results are prettier than the original and completely delicious. 

Beets are sweet! But you may have never known this, if you’ve only had them boiled. The thing is, sugar is water soluble—so boiling beets largely washes the sweetness away, leaving behind little more than the flavor of dirt. Quite on the other hand, if you bake beets, the sugar concentrates, the dense fiber softens, and they become lush and meaty. By slow baking them, the sugars don’t caramelize the way they do at higher roasting temperatures, yielding a sweetness that is as clean and refined as sugar.

Beets Roasted on Coffee Beans with Orange Gremolata

Roasted Beets with Gremolata
Photograph by A. Schloss
Makes 6 servings

For the beets:
2 cups/180 g medium-roast coffee beans, preferably decaf
2 lb/910g red and yellow beets (about 8 medium) greens and long roots trimmed, peeled, and cut in 6 wedges
Coarse sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

For the gremolata:
1/4 cup/35 g hazelnuts
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
Juice of 1/2 orange
1/2 garlic clove, coarsely chopped
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 225°F/110°C. Place a large oven-safe skillet (one with a metal handle) over medium heat to heat for about 5 minutes.
Add the coffee beans to the hot skillet and remove from heat. Shake until the coffee is aromatic and the beans look a bit oily, about 1 minute. Scatter the beets over the beans in a single layer and season with salt and pepper. Cover the pan with a lid or a sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Bake until the beets are fork-tender and infused with coffee oil, 4 to 5 hours.

While the beets are cooking, prepare the gremolata: Heat a heavy skillet over high heat for 3 minutes. Add the hazelnuts and stir for 30 seconds. Remove from the heat and keep stirring until the nuts are toasted. Dump the nuts out of the pan onto a kitchen towel. Fold the towel around the nuts and rub them vigorously to remove their papery skins. Pick up the nuts, leaving the flakes of skin behind in the towel. Chop the nuts finely in a food processor (pulse carefully, or you may end up with nut butter) or with a knife. In a small bowl, mix the nuts, orange zest and juice, garlic, olive oil, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste.

Lift the beets from the bed of coffee beans and toss with the olive oil and gremolata; serve immediately. Discard the coffee. Alas, the beans have given all they have to the roasting vegetables. They are but ghostly shells of their former coffee-rich selves. 


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