Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Ivy League at the Dinner Table

Mrs. Grande, a widow who lived two houses away from us, was a very generous gardener. She’d often share some extras from her garden with us each season, and my mother would reciprocate by sending over cake or some other homemade goodie. I was more often than not the courier, and I think I must have absorbed some of her love of vegetable gardening by following her up and down the tidy rows while she told me about how each plant grew, and what was doing particularly well that season.

Those were the days when everyone sprayed the daylights out of their gardens, back in the 60’s before we knew how toxic that stuff could be, and Mrs. Grande's vegetable garden was picture perfect.  Peculiar child that I was, I was fascinated by the beets. After a rain, the partly exposed root would be red and shiny and look as if it was trying to push itself out of the ground.

One day, when I was about 10, I was asked to stay for lunch, and Mrs. Grande and I sat down to delicious chicken with gravy, and what she called Yale Beets. I told her that my mother said they were Harvard Beets, but Mrs. Grande said,”No, these are Yale beets, try some”. Figures that I went home and told my mother that I liked the Yale Beets better than the Harvard Beets she served frequently. Both dishes were basically beets in a sweet and sour sauce.  

Mom got out a few of her cookbooks and decided that the difference was that Harvard beets were made with vinegar, sugar and cornstarch, while Yale beets were made with orange juice, sugar and flour. There is no really definitive explanation for the origins of the names of these preparations, but at least we knew what was what.

My mom never made the Yale beets, and I bet Mrs. Grande never made the Harvard beets, but my version, which I call Ivy League beets, is a wonderful hybrid version of both. You can cook the beets by any method you prefer. I like to trim the tops and tails, and roast them wrapped in foil in a 400°F for a good hour or so, until they’re tender when poked with the tip of a sharp knife. You can also buy fresh cooked and peeled beets in many markets. If you want to use canned, use 2 cans worth for this recipe, but save about ½ cup of the juice from the can. I use the juices in the foil in the recipe, rinsed into the saucepan with a little water. 2 to 2-1/2 pounds of fresh beets should give you the needed 4 cups.

Ivy League Beets

4 cups of beets, cooked and peeled  in ¼” slices
½ cup beet juice (see above)
1/3 cup rice wine vinegar
Zest and juice of a small orange
½ cup sugar (or equivalent sugar substitute)
5 teaspoons cornstarch
Salt to taste
2T butter

In a medium saucepan, whisk together the beet juice, vinegar, orange juice, zest and cornstarch until the cornstarch is dissolved. Add the sugar and place over medium-high heat, stirring until the mixture comes to a boil. Whisk for another minute, add the beets, stir gently and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the butter, taste for salt and serve. Serves 6. 

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