Mouths to Feed: Some of the People All of the Time

beets

Beet Risotto with Sauteed Greens and Goat Cheese (Photo by C. Barbour)

“I eat everything,” said my charming new friend X. I had just asked if she or her husband had any dietary restrictions or aversions. They were staying with us for a couple days, and I see no point in preparing food that will make people unhappy or ill when there are so many other good meals I can cook instead. Her reply was both a relief and an itsy-bitsy red flag. I have never met a self-proclaimed voracious food-loving omnivore (myself included) who didn’t have some quirky dislike tucked away among their gustatory enthusiasms.

X (not her real name) was no exception. The next day, we were sitting on the porch talking about books and life, and she mentioned that she hates raw onion.

“Me too!” (We were bonding!) I said I hated it when I ordered a vegetable or grain salad and it came filled with chunks of raw onion; it’s a cheap way for restaurants to bulk up a dish. And don’t get me started on the massive slabs of onion served with burgers.

X turned a faint shade of green. She said that if a waiter misheard her burger order and brought hers with a slice of onion on it by mistake, she had trouble eating the burger even after removing the onion, due to the residual raw-onion aroma that clung to the lettuce and bun.

Whoa, I thought. That’s significant. And it means I better not make the quick-pickled beets and onions I’d wanted to include with tomorrow’s goat cheese salad. But what, then, should I do with the beets I’d roasted, the kale I’d washed?

I shelved my worry. One of the wonderful things about cooking is that ingredients are a bit like Legos: They can be put together any number of different ways. Start with a reliable combination — e.g., beets, goat cheese, rosemary and greens — and you can create a sandwich, a casserole, a pasta dish, a salad. I hoped that a good idea would come to me.

The next day, I walked into the kitchen, spied a forgotten bag of Arborio rice and bang, brain flash: beet risotto with sauteed greens. The resulting dish was fairly amazing, even to me. X took pictures and asked for the recipe; her husband had thirds. They both marveled at my culinary inventiveness. I basked in their praise, and felt an itsy-bitsy bit guilty.

I have never met a person who was a perfect replica of the story they convey to the world about themselves, myself included. If our friends wanted to think that I was a culinary wizard, was I required to dissuade them? I chose not to mention that I’ve come across beet risottos on menus and food sites in the past.

While I’m at it, here’s another confession. This dish came together in 35 minutes because I had already roasted the beets, caramelized the onions and sauteed the greens. Is it worth making from scratch? Yeah, probably. But here’s a tip for those of you who have read this far: Now that it’s fall, why not spend an evening roasting a bunch of different vegetables? Caramelize some onions, sauté some greens, then stash everything away in your fridge. That way, when life gets busy, you’ll be ready for (just about) everything.

Beet Risotto with Sauteed Greens and Goat Cheese

For the roasted beets

1 bunch beets, trimmed and scrubbed, greens reserved
Splash olive oil

Heat oven to 425 degrees. If the beets are very large, cut them into halves or quarters. Place in a small roasting pan. Drizzle with olive oil. Add a generous splash of water (about ¼ cup). Wrap the pan with foil and seal tightly around the edges. Roast beets until tender when pierced with the tip of a knife, about 40 to 50 minutes, depending on size. (Be careful when lifting the foil; the steam can burn you.) When cool enough to handle, rub off skins.

For the greens

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, diced
Salt and pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 to 3 bunches greens, such as kale, chard or beet greens (see note)

Note: Kale takes the longest to cook — about 8 to 10 minutes. Chard and beet greens are done sooner, in 4 to 5 minutes. If you are using a mixture, keep separate as you work and add them in batches.

In a large sauté pan, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and toss to coat. Cook, stirring very occasionally, until the onion is deep golden brown, darkening toward mahogany in some places, 20 to 25 minutes. Meanwhile, remove the tough stems from the greens. Slice the leaves crosswise into 1½-inch ribbons.

When the onion is caramelized, add the garlic and red pepper flakes, and cook just until the garlic is beginning to soften, about 3 minutes. Turn up the heat to medium-high, add the greens, toss to coat well, and cook, stirring often, until wilted.

For the risotto

5 cups chicken or vegetable broth
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter, divided
1 small onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried rosemary, crushed
½ teaspoon dried thyme, crushed
2 cups Arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine or dry vermouth
2 cups roasted beets (see above) cut into 1-inch pieces
1 to 2 cups sauteed greens (see above)
4 ounces fresh goat cheese, plus more for serving
Zest of one lemon

In a small saucepan, heat the broth to a boil, then reduce heat and keep at a low simmer. In a large Dutch oven or saucepan, heat the olive oil and half the butter over medium heat. Add the diced onion and cook, stirring, until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes, rosemary and thyme, and cook 1 minute. Turn the heat up to medium-high, add the rice, stir to coat well and cook, stirring constantly, until the rice turns opaque, 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the wine or vermouth and cook, stirring, until most is absorbed. Reduce the heat to medium, add a ladleful of hot broth to the rice mixture, and stir as it is absorbed. Continue adding broth at about 2-minute intervals, stirring regularly between additions. When about ¾ of the broth has been added, taste a few grains of rice: It should be just chewable but still quite firm.

Add about half the chopped beets. Continue adding the broth until just about a ladleful is left in the saucepan. Stir the remaining beets and the greens into the risotto, along with the remaining butter. Just before serving, stir in the goat cheese, then the final ladle of broth. Top with lemon zest. Serve with additional goat cheese on the side.

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