2 cups lightly packed dried dates
If your dates are on the dry side, combine them in a bowl with:
1 cup warm water...
Whew. Not to be a naysayer, but I'm glad the holiday feeding frenzy is over. I certainly believe there's a reason we only consume certain things once a year--eggnog, the fatted holiday ham, hypersweet breakfast pastries--and now that we've emerged alive and perhaps a few pounds heavier into the new year, I for one am glad to be eating fruits, veggies, and whole grains in droves.
I am not, you see, a great believer in starvation cleanses. Perhaps because I am fairly young with a still-hopping metabolism, every attempt I've made at one of these cure-all cleanses has been met with very hungry failure. I much prefer to just eat healthier in general than try to starve away the month of December and its inevitable physical effects.
Many people find January dieting to be problematic, however, because of what happens to be in season at the time. Of course, thanks to California, international trade, and hydroponics, we can eat salad greens year round. Other than that, however, if you're trying to eat seasonally, January is a long month of root vegetables, spectacularly punctuated by citrus season. Unfortunately, one can only eat so many oranges and grapefruits.
But this is an opportunity to expand your root vegetable repertoire, not a sentence to peeling potatoes all winter long. Root vegetables, along with stalwart winter squashes and the occasional cabbage, can make vibrant, healthy meals on the cheap. This is particularly true of beets.
I know, I know. You don't like them. Or you've been scarred by too many servings of Harvard Beets, pickled beets, or gritty beet salads. But beets have the rare advantage of being naturally sweet, healthful, and hearty. My favorite way to prepare beets is to roast them, but a close second would have to be the indomitable borscht.
The other day, Ethan referred to borscht as "Russian minestrone." While this may be, to some food historians, a heresy, he is probably right on. Many soups and stews from around the world are simply amalgamations of what is on hand at the time, and while borscht and minestrone look about as different as can be, they are both making the best of what vegetables are in season and widely available.
A quick word about soups. If you start with good stock, you can make a great soup. There really is no substitute. Homemade is preferable, but store bought is certainly better than nothing. For a basic homemade beef stock, refer to our article on Pressure Cooker Chicken Stock, and instead of chicken simply use 3 to 5 pounds of beef bones that have been cut into 2-inch pieces (Ask your local supermarket butcher about beef bones--he or she should be able to cut them for you). If you like, you can roast the bones and vegetables for 45 minutes at 400˚F before adding them to the stock pot to give the finished stock a richer flavor. Cook the stock for an hour and a half instead of 45 minutes.
Another word to the wise--don't be a slave to the recipe. Borscht is a very forgiving soup--use what you have on hand. For our last batch, we used cubed turnips, Napa cabbage, frozen roma tomatoes from last summer, and leftover steak cut into cubes. You could use a wide variety of vegetables, from parsnips to potatoes, and the soup would be just as delectable. Also feel free to substitute your choice of meat for the beef--the flavor of chicken might get lost in this soup, but pork or even goat meat would be perfectly at home.
Preheat the oven to 400˚F. Scrub:
3 to 4 medium red beets (12 ounces), leaves removed
Wrap the beets individually in aluminum foil and roast on a baking sheet until tender, about 1 hour. Alternatively, for a quicker borscht, simply peel the beets, cut them into matchsticks and add them raw to the simmering stock. Roasting concentrates the beets' flavor, but it won't ruin the soup to just add them straightaway.
While the beets are roasting, lightly dredge:
1 pound beef stew meat or boneless beef chuck, cubed
All-purpose flour seasoned with salt and pepper
Heat in a soup pot over medium-high heat:
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Add the meat and brown on all sides. Remove the meat to a paper towel-lined plate, reduce the heat to medium, and add to the pot:
1 medium onion, chopped
2 medium carrots, chopped
2 celery ribs, chopped
Sauté until the onions are translucent, about 10 minutes. Add:
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
Cook until the garlic is fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the reserved meat and:
5 cups beef stock or broth
One 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, drained and chopped
(2 medium potatoes, diced)
(2 medium turnipes, diced)
Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, partially covered, until the meat is almost tender, about 30 minutes.
Stir in the beet matchsticks, if using raw beets, and:
2 cups shredded green or red cabbage
Simmer, partially covered, until the vegetables and meat are tender, about 30 minutes. If using roasted beets, peel them, cut them into matchsticks, and add them to the soup, along with:
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste (or use soy sauce for an inauthentic but delicious umami boost)
Simmer, partially covered, for 15 minutes. Serve with:
Sour cream or Greek yogurt