Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Guess what? I'm still hot.

Maybe I've been living in San Francisco too long that I think it's the only city in the world that has an Indian Summer; on the contrary, Wikipedia tells me that the term's probably-racist etymology can be traced back centuries before our fair city even had English-speaking residents. So let's not say Indian Summer anymore. This being San Francisco, I'm surprised that nobody has yet lobbied to change its official designation, maybe to something snappy like the the only week in San Francisco that is actually warm.

That's right, ditch your light sweater, pull that dusty fan out of the coat closet, and meet me at Trader Joe's to pick up some sparkling raspberry lemonade for our picnic on Ocean Beach, because it's truly, unqualifiedly warm this week.  If other cities do have unexpected warm spells, surely none is as dramatic as a autumn heat wave in San Francisco. For a city where "a nice summer day" translates to "the fog broke from 1 PM to 5 PM and there was a concert on Speedway Meadow," coming home from work in 82-degree heat in the tenth month of the year is like wandering through someone else's muggy California dream.

And I don't really like it. Look, I know Californians are generally wusses when it comes to weather, but I very deliberately moved here for grad school so that I would never have to experience a temperature below 52 or above 73 degrees Fahrenheit (good choice!). Also, I've been getting ready for Fogtober, so last week I ditched all the late-summer tomatoes and melons from my shelves to make room for squash and potatoes, pears and rosemary.  I want to bake, I want to braise, I want to roast a chicken every single night.  What am I supposed to do when the air in my apartment is hanging so thick and still that I won't even heat up the oven for five minutes to make toast in the morning?

I have choir rehearsal in an air-conditioned hall in Berkeley twice a week, and on Monday evening when I got home from that, Jeff had yet another wonderful meal waiting for me--white bean succotash with tomatoes and smoked eggplant spread.  Over dinner and a pint of cold, cold cider, he let me know that there was some pie crust chilling out in the fridge, in case I had any particular ambitions for it.  Apparently his original plan was to make a tomato pie, but this seemed like less and less of a winning idea as the thermometer continued to climb into the later hours of the evening. I'm glad he reconsidered; I think if I had come home to a pie baking in a 400-degree oven, I would have fainted.

I understand--it's hard to solve the simultaneous equations that lead you to a dinner that maximizes taste while minimizing the temperature of your apartment, especially when heat coaxes so many new flavors out of ingredients.  Yesterday evening it was my turn to make dinner, and my first instinct was just to make salad, which almost seems like cheating.  In The Art of Cooking with Vegetables, Alain Passard describes this mixture of cabbage, apples, garlic, and tarragon as "lip-smacking."  I'm not sure if he means delicious, or tart, or crispy, or that the salad will actually kiss you, or some other untranslatable French idiom--all I know is that it was a very effective savory combination of a few ingredients that I might not have thought about putting together.

But I decided I needed to do one better than a lip-smacking salad--I needed something refreshing, and as close to frozen as possible.  Looking at the array of fall vegetables I had collected over the weekend, and not really wanting to step outside, I decided on a cold beet soup, even though it did require turning on the stove to boil beets for an hour.  After a few minutes of work with my hand blender, I threw in a quick-pickle of some cucumbers and garnished it with a little mint (cooling) and fresh tahini (creamy).  I even chilled the bowls.  It worked!  So sweet and so cold.  I'd make it again.  I'd even serve it warm.  Just not until Fogvember.


Ice-cold beet soup with cucumber pickles
Serves 4-6

6 red beets, about 2 lb
a red onion
an english cucumber
1 cup white vinegar
1 cup sugar
2 bay leaves
12 black peppercorns
1/4 cup (or more) olive oil
1/4 cup tahini
fresh horseradish root
a few sprigs of fresh mint
kosher salt
sherry vinegar

Quarter the red onion and cut it into thin slices.  Place the onion slices in a large pot with the beets.  Add water to cover the vegetables, along with a few big pinches of salt.  Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to low and simmer until the beets are completely tender when pierced with a knife, at least 30 minutes but maybe up to 60 minutes or even longer.

While the vegetables are simmering, make the pickles.  Cut the cucumber into rough chunks, toss with two tablespoons of salt, and add to a colander.  Let the cucumber sit for 30 minutes.  Meanwhile, bring the white vinegar to a boil in a small pot along with the sugar and 1 cup of water.  When it boils, stir to dissolve the sugar completely, remove from the heat, and add the peppercorns and bay leaves.  When 30 minutes have passed, rinse off the cucumber pieces in cold running water and transfer them to a large jar or bowl.  Pour the sugared vinegar over them and store them in the refrigerator.

When the beets are completely tender, remove them from the pot and run cold water over them until the outsides have cooled off a bit and you can handle them easily.  Using gloves or a paper towel, rub the skins off the beets and discard.  Cut one of the beets into medium-size cubes and set aside.  Take the remaining beets and cut each one into a few pieces.  Using a hand blender or food processor, puree these beets, along with all of the stewed onions and a little of the beet cooking liquid, until completely smooth.  Add more of the cooking liquid until you get a soupy texture, keeping in mind that the soup will be thicker when served cold.  Taste, and adjust the seasoning with olive oil, sherry vinegar, and salt.

Keep the pickles, the beet soup, and the beet cubes in the fridge until chilled completely, at least 3 hours, or up to a few days.

When you're ready to serve, add the tahini to a small bowl and stir in a little water to thin it out, until it's a thick, yet pourable consistency.  Add a few beet cubes and pickles to each serving bowl and pour the soup over them.  Garnish with the tahini, finely minced mint leaves, and fresh shaved horseradish.

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