Beets of the Southern Wild with Candied Quvenzhané Walnuts

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Last year, I suffered the greatest humiliation of my life–well, except for that time I got pantsed while roller skating on a Jewish teen tour–when my Glenn Cous Cous Salad with Albert Knobs of Feta lost the Best Oscar Dish contest to Tinker Tailor Shepherd’s Pie. This was at a party hosted by my friends John and Michael; and once again, this year, they threw the same party. I had to bring another dish. THIS TIME I WOULD NOT BE DEFEATED.

And yet my idea for dish, while just punny enough, featured beets. Beets of the Southern Wild. How could beets win anything? There are people who love beets, sure, but there are also people who abhor beets. President Obama is one such person. If President Obama took the night off to come judge this contest, I’d be screwed.

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On the other hand, wouldn’t it be a real triumph to win with beets? Like: sure, I could make a chili (maybe The Best Chili of Your Life) and call it Meats of the Southern Wild, but then I’d be playing it safe. Of course a dish with meat would win: meat feels important, meat feels significant. When powerful business people have powerful business meetings, they don’t do it over beets; they do it over steak at a steakhouse. Winning with beets would be like winning the Super Bowl while wearing a tutu. That’s just the kind of challenge that excites me.

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So I went to the farmer’s market and bought 12 red beets and 12 golden beets. I came home and used the technique Anthony Martin taught me in my cookbook: make a foil pouch of three to four beets (of the same color), drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, close up the pouch and put it on a cookie sheet and roast in a 325 oven for an hour until a knife goes through the pouch easily.

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While the beets were in the oven, I moved on to my next idea. Man cannot win by beets alone. There has to be something extra, something special to push this over the top. I recalled a recipe I once made of Nancy Silverton’s for spicy, candied walnuts. (See the recipe here.) The heat and sweetness and crunch of these nuts would provide an exciting foil for the deep, almost muddy, earthiness and softness of beets. Plus I could add another pun: Candied Quvenzhané Walnuts.

So you boil walnuts in a sugar syrup spiked with Cayenne pepper:

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Then, after 35 minutes, you drain them…

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…and heat oil in a pot to 350 degrees. Then you fry those candied walnuts for 2 minutes until they get extra crisp:

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Look how pretty:

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Sprinkle those with salt and set them aside. If you time this well, your beets will come out of the oven just as you finish the walnuts. Then all you have to do is peel them. I try to do this while the beets are still warm so they absorb the dressing better.

Really, the best way is to use paper towels. Just take a warm beet, rub it with a paper towel and the skin will come right off. (You can use the same paper towel a few times, I discovered.) I also discovered something else kind of funny: if you peel red beets first and get the red all over your hands, the red will disappear if you peel golden beets afterwards. It’s very strange but true. When I finished the red beets, my hands made me look like Lady MacBeth. After the golden beets, I was clean as a daisy.

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At this point, my process was simple. I sliced the beets into wedges or rings, keeping the golden ones and the red ones separate, and then tossed the warm, peeled beets with olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper. I tasted to adjust and that was it. Then all I had to do was assemble my dish.

It went like this: all the red beets on the left side of the Tupperware, all the golden beets on the right side. (If you mix them all together, the red beets will turn the golden beets pink.) I chopped up my candied walnuts and tossed them with each group of beets. At Gelson’s, I bought some micro arugula because it wouldn’t dominate the salad like regular arugula might, but would add some green. I also bought some goat cheese which I crumbled over everything. Here’s the result:

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This was an elegant entry if ever there was one. But was it too elegant? Should I have just made Denzel’s Drunk Blondies and called it a day?

I loaded the beets into my friend Vance’s car and tried to forget about them as we drove to John and Michael’s new house in Glendale. When we got there, I tried to play it cool, casually scoping out the competition.

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Mmmhmm.

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Ok.

But what’s this?

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Zoom in a little closer.

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Holy crap: someone made the actual cake that Mary Todd Lincoln made to woo Honest Abe out of his Lincoln Log cabin? And bothered to print the story of this recipe on parchment with a cool font and a picture of Mary Todd herself? This was serious stuff. Plus, later on when we ate the cake, it was very good. With almonds and icing and everything.

I sat throughout the Oscars nervously eyeing the clock. When would we vote on Best Dish? Who cares what Jennifer Lawrence is wearing!

At the end of the night, the votes were tallied:

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Let’s pretend they’re judging the food contest in that picture when really they’re doing the Oscar betting pool first.

At last, John announced the big winner. Are you ready for it? Can you guess who won?

* * * * *

The morning sun hit the dew on the lawn outside my apartment. Lolita, the cat, mewled for her wet food. A tea kettle blew its angry whistle in the kitchen.

As I started my day, I felt something surging inside of me. Was it the Mexican food I’d had a few days ago for lunch? Was it the remains of a Zero Dark Dirty Martini?

No, my friends, what I was feeling was a surge of pride. My beets won BEST DISH at this year’s Oscar Party. I won with beets!

I’d like to thank all of the little people who made this possible but, mostly, I’d like to thank the farmer who grew those beets. And my agent. And Chad Lowe.

But mostly I’d like to thank all of you, for always believing in me. I couldn’t have done it without you.

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Recipe: Beets of the Southern Wild with Candied Quvenzhané Walnuts

Summary: The dish that won the Oscar party. (Featuring Nancy Silverton’s Candied Spicy Walnuts.)

Ingredients

  • 6 to 12 red beets (depends on how much you want to make)
  • 6 to 12 golden beets
  • Olive oil
  • Kosher salt
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons cayenne pepper
  • 2 cups walnuts halves
  • Vegetable oil (for frying)
  • Red wine vinegar
  • Pepper
  • 1 cup Micro-arugula (or just regular arugula)
  • Crumbled goat cheese (about a disc or two)

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 325. Cut the tops and bottoms off your beets and wash them quickly under cold water to get off any dirt. Pat them very dry with paper towels and create little foil pouches of 3 to 4 beets each, keeping reds with reds and golden beets with golden beets. Drizzle each cluster of beets with a little olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Close up the packet tightly and put on a foil lined cookie sheet. When all of your beets are bundled up and on the cookie sheet, stick into the oven and roast for an hour or until a knife goes through all of the beets easily. (Just stab through the packets.) If it’s taking too long, you can turn the oven up to 350.
  2. Meanwhile, make your candied walnuts. Combine the water, sugar and cayenne in a saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. When the sugar dissolves, add the walnuts and cook for about 35 minutes, until the syrup “boils and bubbles thickly and vigorously.”
  3. Towards the end of that, pour vegetable oil into a pot (I used a Dutch Oven) so it only comes up 1/3rd of the way. Turn the heat to high and use a thermometer to tell when it reaches 350 degrees F.
  4. Drain your candied walnuts and very carefully, using a slotted spoon or a spider, lower clusters of them into the hot oil. Fry for 2 minutes until dark brown and then lift on to a cookie sheet. Sprinkle immediately with salt and continue frying until all of the walnuts are done.
  5. When the beets are cool enough to handle, rub them with paper towels to remove the skin. Slice into wedges and rings, still keeping the reds and the golden ones separate. In the red bowl, toss the beets with olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper to taste; do the same with the golden beets in the golden beet bowl (by Henry James). Chop up the nuts and toss them in with the beets, saving some to sprinkle on top. Same with the micro-arugula and the goat cheese.
  6. Now assemble your salad. I did in Tupperware, but if you’re not going to a party, you can do this on a platter. Either put all the golden beets on one side and the reds on the other or stagger them without tossing them. Top with more nuts, more arugula, more cheese and a grind or two of pepper. There you are, an Oscar-winning dish.

Preparation time: 30 minute(s)

Cooking time: 1 hour(s)

Number of servings (yield): 12

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