Malcolm McDowell Woods
The budget gourmet

Hard to beet

By - Aug 25th, 2009 05:53 pm

Annie Wegner. Photo by Stephanie Bartz

Late summer is my favorite time of the year in terms of local food. I see it as the beginning of harvest time with a plethora of vegetables maturing. There are tomatoes, which I wait for all year, abstaining from buying the grocery store’s pale, tasteless version that’s picked green to ripen on the ride from California. There are also summer squash, string beans, potatoes, eggplants, and peppers, as well as the first of the region’s apple crop. But one of my favorite vegetables of this season is the humble red beet.

My first experience with beets was my mother eating them pickled out of a can as I was growing up. I couldn’t stand them until I was well into my teens. Their flavor is not one that’s immediately embraced by all. In fact, many people I know detest beets. My husband swore he wouldn’t eat beets before I prepared them and my brother-in-law is still conflicted about them since an incident with his childhood babysitter. But I love beets and therefore grow lots of them, both red and golden, in my garden each year. And don’t discount the greens; they are a wealth of nutrition. They will always remind me of days past when I was a “starving” chef intern. After work back at the house where I rented a room, I’d eat beets at least three times a week and save the greens for another meal when I would quickly sauté them in oil then hit them with a few dashes of soy sauce and sesame oil.

The recipe that follows is a twist on the components of the classic salad – baby spinach, roasted red beets, toasted walnuts and blue cheese – that is usually served with balsamic vinaigrette. It’s one of my favorite items on seasonal restaurant menus; I almost always order it.

I’ve had a pasta maker for several years, but hadn’t used it much until recently, after I bought an obscure pasta-making book at a used book sale. This paperback gives all sorts of ideas for vegetable pastas, with which I’ve been experimenting. I use an Italian-made Imperia 150 model pasta roller with a tagliatelle attachment, which is available online for under $75, used. There are also pasta maker attachments for Kitchenaid mixers, but they are fairly expensive, starting around $130. One could also make pasta the old-fashioned way, by hand. In fact, when I was on a cooking excursion in Bologna, Italy, this is how our pasta class instructor, Franca, insisted it should be done. Needless to say, she had forearms the size of Sicily. If you eat a lot of pasta then it might be worthwhile to invest in a pasta maker, but if it’s an occasional thing, just get a group of friends together to make lighter work of it a mano like the Italians do.

Beet Pasta with Beet Greens, Blue Cheese Sauce and Toasted Hickory Nuts
1 recipe Beet Pasta (see recipe that follows)
1 recipe Blue Cheese Sauce (see recipe that follows—the pasta soaks up quite a lot of sauce so you might consider preparing a double batch)
2 oz. toasted hickory nuts (or walnuts)
8 oz. local spinach or reserved beets greens
1 T. grapeseed oil
Balsamic vinegar, for drizzling

Beet Pasta
Makes about 1/2 lb. pasta

4 oz. red beets, greens removed with an inch or so of stem left
1 c. semolina flour
2 T. water, if and as needed
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Put the beets in a small roasting pan and cover. Roast for 45 minutes to 1 hour depending on the size of the beets. (You want them soft enough to purée. You should be able to insert a knife or skewer into the center of the beet and pull it out easily.) When cool enough to handle, slip the skins off and purée in a food processor or mince very finely, then “mash” by hand. You will need 1/3 c. of beet purée for the pasta. (Save any leftover purée for more pasta, baby food, beet burgers, or a smoothie.)

If using an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment: Put the flour and the beet purée in the mixer bowl and mix at low speed until combined. Mix for about 12 minutes to form a homogenous, well-kneaded ball of dough.

If mixing by hand: Put the dry ingredients on the kitchen counter and form a “well” in the center. Add liquid ingredients to the center of the flour and knead the dough together, scraping the flour from the outside into the liquid ingredients. Once the dough has formed a nice, smooth ball, continue to knead it by hand for several minutes.

The moisture content of the beets may throw off the balance in the dough. For either method, knead the dough sufficiently by hand to pull all moisture out of the beets before adding water. Then, if needed, add water if too crumbly, or semolina if too wet. When a smooth silky texture has been reached, form a ball and let it rest at room temperature for about 20 minutes. This will allow the dough to relax before rolling.

Divide the dough ball into four equal portions to make it more manageable for rolling.

If using a pasta roller: Slightly flatten the first portion into a rectangle on the counter. Set the roller on the thickest setting, run the dough through the rollers. Do not force it; let the rollers pull it through. Don’t worry if it’s lumpy after the first roll; fold the dough over itself and run it through again sprinkling with flour to prevent sticking. When it appears to hold together, adjust the roller to the next setting and roll the dough through. Continue reducing the space between the rollers, one notch at a time until the desired thickness is reached. Pass the pasta through the cutter attachment. Repeat with remaining dough portions.

If rolling by hand: Flatten the dough ball slightly by hand then use a rolling pin dusted with flour and roll from the center outward lengthwise until it’s as thick as desired. Using a manual pasta cutter (looks like a small pizza cutter) cut the pasta into strips.

Hang the pasta to dry. I use a clothes drying rack set in front of a fan, but also found a plan online for making a drying rack. Go to and search for “Make Your own Pasta Drying Rack.” Store the pasta in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer if not using immediately.
To cook, fill a pot with 2 to 3 quarts of well-salted water and add the pasta slowly once the water reaches boiling. Stir the pasta to prevent it from sticking together. Boil about 7 to 8 minutes then drain.

Blue Cheese Sauce
Makes about 1 c. sauce
2 shallots, chopped finely
4 T. unsalted butter
6 oz. blue cheese, crumbled
1/2 c. heavy cream
1/4 t. black pepper
In a skillet over low heat, melt the butter and sauté the shallots until soft, about 7 or 8 minutes; do not let them brown. Add the blue cheese, using a fork to mash it into the butter to form a paste. Add the heavy cream and mix well. Heat to just below boiling so as not to scald the cream. Stir in the pepper.

Cover and set aside.

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat, add the oil, let it get hot, then sauté the spinach or beet greens until just wilted. Turn down the heat to medium, add the pasta, and toss to coat. Add the sauce and toss until the pasta is well coated. Add hickory nuts and toss one last time. After plating, drizzle some balsamic vinegar around the plate. Serve immediately.

Beets and Beet Greens—Wellspring, 4382 Hickory Rd., West Bend, (262) 675-0195, . Wellspring is a certified organic vegetable farm and training ground for future farmers just north of Newburg. It is also a bed and breakfast, an international hostel and retreat center. You can find Wellspring’s farm-fresh produce at the Downtown West Bend Farmers’ Market.

Blue Cheese—Black River Gorgonzola, North Hendren Cooperative, W8204 Spencer Rd., Willard, (715) 267-6617,. The North Hendren Co-op Dairy is a small local nonprofit, farmer owned since 1923. They currently specialize in blue-veined cheeses using farmer-certified rBGH free milk. Their Gorgonzola is available at the West Allis Cheese and Sausage Shoppe in the Milwaukee Public Market, 400 N. Water St., Milwaukee, 289-8333.

Hickory Nuts—(These nuts are a bit of an indulgence, price wise, but you only need a little bit.) Ray’s Hickory Nuts, Juneau,. Ray Pamperin, a retired dairy farmer, has harvested, cracked, and sold various nuts since 1979. He currently only sells his hickory nuts online.

Also available at Outpost Natural Foods:
Heavy Cream—Organic Valley Cooperative, La Farge, WI
Butter—Westby Cooperative Creamery, Westby, WI

Local Eating Hint
This time of the season you could find yourself in the thick of preserving. There are still many fruits and vegetables to preserve, so plan ahead to avoid becoming overwhelmed. There is still time to can batches of salsa, pickled beets, applesauce, and grape juice or to freeze winter squash, broccoli, and blanched greens. In the next month or so your access to farmers’ markets may dwindle so prepare now for a full larder this winter.

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