A couple of weeks ago I was trying to come up with ideas for things to serve at an event scheduled to happen in late November and so I pulled out a stack of cookbooks and sat down on the couch and began turning pages.
One of the books I pulled out was Marion Cunningham’s Lost Recipes, which is a book I’ve read probably fifteen times. You’d think I would have noticed this recipe for Beet Marmalade before, since I love beets — but no. It had entirely escaped my attention. This time, though, I snapped to and said, “AHA.” This was clearly the Special Thing that could transform so many things we already like to eat, the thing that could make a boring meal seem special. And it could, possibly, be used to tremendous effect at an event happening in late November 2018.
This assumes of course that most of us like beets. I know it is a dicey thing, serving people beets. My daughter won’t go near them, which has always really bummed me out. So let me rephrase: this could be the Special Thing that brings light and joy to an otherwise humdrum meal, for the sort of person who likes beets.
Otherwise, of course, it’s a total fucking nightmare. But, you know, whatevs.
Cunningham’s recipe goes like this (allowing for my paraphrasing):
Take four medium-large beets. Boil the crap out of them, peel, chop, throw into food processor and mash up. Transfer lurid glop into saucepan and add 1 1/2 cups sugar. Take one large lemon and 2 tablespoons chopped, peeled fresh ginger, throw into food processor until finely chopped. Add lemon/ginger mixture to pot on stove, and stir, cooking over medium-low heat, until glop has thickened, which takes only a couple of minutes.
Now I am not into lemon and I’ve got a limited interest in ginger. However, it was clear that the basic concept was something in which I could have a deep, abiding interest, and that it would be easy peasy not-lemon squeezy to adapt the recipe to my tastes, desires, and available ingredients.
As it happened, this weekend we were expecting dinner guests, an old college friend traveling from out of town, and his wife, a total stranger to me. They were traveling to town so the wife could attend a conference in town here — not travel for fun at all. They would be ending their visit by stopping by our house. I felt strongly that this called for a certain kind of evening: An evening meal that was homey and simple but good was mandatory. I didn’t have to fret about elaborate presentations, but I didn’t want the meal to be boring, either. I defaulted to making a roast chicken and potatoes, and then began to think about what I could do to give people an option to jazz that up: it was clear to me that beet marmalade would be the answer. The vegetable on the side, requested by my daughter, would be broccoli cooked with a large quantity of garlic. It seemed to me that this plan would make for a pleasantly colorful, but comforting, meal — familiar, but not stodgy, with a little bit of zip and zing.
Now, I had planned ahead, at some 101-level. I had in the house a bunch of really big beets, and I had a six-pound chicken to roast. So I felt like I was in reasonable shape, when I woke up on Saturday morning.
At eight I took the four massive beets from my fridge, put the oven to 400°, and wrapped the beets in foil after giving them a scrub. I let them roast for a ludicrously long time because to be honest big beets take forever to cook through — I think I had them in the oven for close to two hours. In those two hours I established how I would cook the potatoes (fuck it: bake ’em) and went out to the store to buy some fresh broccoli.
Around two in the afternoon I unwrapped the beets, peeled them, and threw three of them into the food processor. (The last beet, I’m saving for another project.) Once I had a beet puree, I dumped all the glop into a small pot and went to the fridge to look for my bottle of ginger juice, which is very handy. Ginger juice totally makes up for the fact that I almost never have fresh ginger around.
Turns out, I’m out of ginger juice.
Without missing a beat I thought, “Well, to hell with it,” and turned to the sweet drawer, where I had a jar of candied ginger. It’s probably been sitting there for four years. I took out about five big pieces and threw them into the food processor with about half a cup of white sugar and half a cup of brown sugar and the juice of the borderline-sad half-lime I had in the fridge and the half a red onion I had sitting next to the lime. I whizzed all of that together in the processor and added it to the beets in the pot. I turned on the flame and cooked this down, stirring often, over about ten minutes, and then I left it to cool.
When I tasted it I said, aloud, “Damn this is good.”
I set a little dish of it out on the dining table at dinnertime, before I carved the chicken. I said, “Ok, this is beet jam, or beet marmalade, or something. You can put it on a slice of bread or you can have it with your chicken or you could put it on your potatoes or whatever.” Many spoonfuls of this stuff were added to plates — it turned out all of us were people who like beets (except my daughter, who curled her lip at the dish, but that’s her problem). I found it was excellent on bread with some cheddar cheese and also with goat cheese. It was a lovely counterpoint to the roast chicken. There was really nothing wrong with it. “This will be added to the Thanksgiving table, I think,” my husband said.
I am already thinking about variant forms of this beet condiment. I am imagining a wholly-sweet version that could be used to glaze a chocolate beet cake, a suggestion made by a beet-loving friend with whom I discussed this condiment. I am imagining an more savory version, made with less sugar and lots and lots of chopped onion. I’m predicting many towels will be beet-stained in the months to come. I’m predicting, too, a dire uptick in my use of Fels-Naptha. It may be worthwhile to invest in a magenta-colored tablecloth.