Why Hello There, and welcome to Kitchen Catastrophes. I’m your host, Jon O’Guin, and I think it’s no secret that I have a history of making bad decisions. I once stick a glowing ember in my mouth because I forgot which hand my Tootsie Pop was in. I went to college for a Pre-Law degree, and decided “Nah, man, THEATRE is where it’s at!” I read all the Twilight novels simply so I could state with authority that they were bad. What does any of this have to do with today’s recipe? Nothing. What it DOES pertain to is today’s WRITING. Yes, as will surprise essentially none of my teachers over the years, I am stoically plugging away at this the night before it’s supposed to be done.
And normally, that wouldn’t be so bad. Knock it out the night before, spend the morning editing pictures, tweaking settings, and uploading it, have it to the people by 2-3, which is when I try to have the posts up by, in case you’ve never really noticed the timing. (Actually, the site’s traffic numbers tell me most of you wait until Tuesday to check it out, which is honestly a show that you do really understand how I operate. ) I said NORMALLY it wouldn’t be so bad, because I’m something of a night owl. Writing till 2 AM and getting up at 9-10 is a pretty easy schedule for me to keep. But today’s different: Today , I have to be up at the god-forsaken hour of 4 AM, because my mother is going on a brief business trip. And my dad wants to try and take his first day back at work since his cancer diagnosis, at around 6:30. You may recognize those times as being both A: before 9-10 AM, and B: just far enough apart to be agonizing to wait for, and just close enough to be meaningless to try and sleep between. So, by the time you read this, it is not impossible that I’ve been awake for 11 hours, and since I’m currently writing this at 12:50 AM, I might be running on 2.5 hours of sleep.
Fortunately I have made...preparations for such an event.
As such, I thought it would do me some small good at least to hearken back to happier times: times of merriment, child sacrifice, and universal profanity. The long-ago time of EASTER. And discuss a dish I made for this past Easter dinner, Beet & Ginger salad! So first, of course, let’s talk about a Frenchman, and briefly, an American.
(Author’s Note: My father actually abandoned his plans at 5, so I ended up taking that picture and immediately passing out until 11.)
KC and Jo-Jo, Together At Last
Now, Mark Bittman is a name I’ve dropped more than a few times over the course of this site’s history. He wrote a book titled “How To Cook Everything”, and is generally involved eventually whenever you talk about cookbooks. This is because, as I may not have ever brought up, that’s what he does: write cookbooks. Mark Bittman wrote the main New York Times food articles for 13 years. He’s written something like 20 books. He is, in a word, prolific.
In another word: silly.
He’s also not who we’re really focusing on today. I bring him up because he helped write the cookbook that today’s recipe came from. Specifically, today’s recipe is cited in the book as being one of his favorites from the chef in question, and part of an initial push to reveal his secrets.
The chef in question in Jean-Georges Vongerichten, a name that, if you’ve spent time in New York’s high class food scene, will be a famililar name, since most of his biggest restaurants are named after him. Vong, Jo-Jo, and of course, Jean-Georges, a restaurant often considered to be among the best in the world. As in “officially recognized by the French government as potentially the 4th best restaurant in the world”. Of course, since this is France, a country noted for its swift and conclusive decision making, that 4th best slot is a 5-way tie. And second place is a two-way tie. So, technically, it’s a 5 way tie for 3rd. Again, this is pretty typical for French awards ceremonies.
So: Jean-Georges is a man known for amazing restaurants, especially in New York. Mark Bittman is known to analyze great food, especially in New York. It was therefore probably inevitable the two would meet and interact. Luckily, perhaps, they became something akin to friends, with Mark helping Jean-Georges write two of his six cookbooks. One of which I happened to find at a local used book store, and bought for something like $5, because it was “buy a cookbook, get one free.”
My copy came pre-stained!
So I’d been reading through it, and noting interesting recipes when an opportunity to take one for a spin fell into my lap. And all over my hands.
Sunday, Bloody Sunday
As can probably be guessed, the whole “My father has cancer” thing threw a huge honking spanner in the works for the various plans and events of the past few weeks. One of those events was of course the holiday Easter. What endedup happening was my brother came into town, we started tearing apart shelving in my dad’s room to minimize contaminants, (the shelves he had were, in some cases, decades old, and undusted for long enough that the dust could certainly buy cigarettes, and potentially a stiff drink. As such, on Saturday the 13th, my mother turned to me and said “Jon, plan Easter dinner”, in the second part of “Jon’s family members give him Easter deadlines for things that really should have been discussed beforehand.” Luckily, I already knew the main course would be the fabled Coke-Ham, as my brother had actually never had it before, merely heard me rave about it and the power of “the Ham-brew”.
His review: "Not half bad."
His indoctrination established, I then decided “Okay, sweet rich ham for entrée, needs something powerful to cut through it.” And my mind immediately leapt to a recipe I’d been eyeing in Jean-Georges cookbook: Beet and Ginger Salad. As I feel has to have been discussed before on the site: I love ginger. I drink Ginger Beer (A sharper relative of ginger ale) probably at least once a week on average. I have ginger based candies, ginger teas, it’s a whole thing with me. And Beets have always been connected with Easter in my mind, probably because one of my grandparents tried the whole “Roast beets and use the juice to dye eggs” thing when I was a child, and it just stuck up in there. Sweet, earthy beets and sharp ginger? Easy duo to cut the richness of the copious amount of ham we were going to have.
Eight pounds of ham
Like the Wu-Tang Clan
Ain't nothing to fuck with.
The first step for getting sweet beets is almost always the same: roast them. Wrap ’em up in tin foil so their leaking juices don’t stain your cookware for eternity, toss ‘em in a hot oven, and wander off for a while. Once the roasting’s done, you’ll have hot little balls of ruby, redolent with the smell of sizzling sugars that you gotta peel the skin from. And if you’ve ever wanted to pretend to be Mola Ram, the villainous high priest from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, now’s your chance, as these things are perhaps uncomfortably heart-shaped. And they look even more worrying once you peel them.
"Bali mangthi Kali Ma! Shakti degi Kali ma! Kali Ma! Kali Ma, Shakti Deh!"
Once you have your tiny children’s hearts, it’s all very straightforward: you make a vinaigrette of sherry vinegar, minced ginger, salt and pepper, you cut up your beets in basically any way you want (Seriously, the cookbook says ”Cut them into disks, cubes, or thin strips” which are basically all the normal ways TO cut a beet.)
Then you toss the beets in the vinaigrette, and let them sit at room temp for 30 minutes to an hour, to let the flavors infuse, and to give you time to wrestle that motherlode of meat into something resembling human portions. We had planned to have the dinner with the beet salad, a normal green salad, Irish Soda bread, and potatoes, but in the end we settled for beets, bread, and meat. And it was still one of the better Easter dinners I’d had in ages.
I feel like I should have some sort of wrap-up here, some summation of my thoughts, but honestly, this one was all over the place. “Trust your family” doesn’t work, because the reason we didn’t have time or space to make the rest of the dinner was because my mother was taken by the conviction that my dad needed another liter of mashed potatoes that instant, after having been taken by the conviction that today, while Jon was trying to cook the meal she told him to make, was the only window to possible build 5 new shelving units, a process that required at least one extra set of hands. “Used Bookstores have hidden gems” is pretty good, but so far unproven: of the 4 books we bought, we’ve only made 2 recipes from 1 of them. Hell, I technically haven’t finished the second one yet. I guess the best I have is “Humble beginnings don’t promise humble results”: this was a bargain-bin recipe, made by a distracted, flailing nitwit at the last minute, and it was still a hit. As Jean-Georges says, “[W]hen I was younger, I was cooking to impress. Sometimes the dish would have 15 things on the plate. That's cooking only for yourself. As you get more mature, you take all the superfluous things away, and you get the essential flavor. Now I cook for people, not for myself.”
And that’s a great attitude to take into the kitchen.
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Beet and Ginger Salad
Serves 4-5 as a side.
4 beets, totaling about 1 pound.
1.5 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tbsp sherry vinegar
2 tsp minced ginger
Salt and pepper
3 to 4 chives, cut into 2 inch sections (optional)
1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Wash the beets, leave them wet, and wrap them individually in foil. Place on a baking sheet, and bake for 90 minutes, until tender. (If in doubt, stab them to test.) Let cool in the foil, and then peel them.
2. Meanwhile, mix remaining ingredients (except chives, if using) into a vinaigrette. When beets are peeled, cut into preferred shapes, and toss in the vinaigrette. Let rest for around 30 minutes at room temperature for flavors to meld.
3. Garnish with chives, if using, and serve.