The other day a great dish was born out one of those long staredowns with a campfire. What did a fellow cook once call that? Oh yeah. TV for hippies.
Ha, 'tis. My hippie tendencies didn't die when we drew the powerline all the way back here, but this time the dancing flames took me to an unlikely place, to an old idea that sprung from a French-trained, New York City chef. For some reason, David Bouley (of Bouley and Brushstroke in Tribeca, and formerly of Danube on the same block) doesn't have the press following that Daniel Boulud or Jean-Georges Vongerichten have, but I would guess that more great chefs of my generation have come from his kitchens than any other in New York. He's a truly brilliant, improvisational, inspired cook.
I worked for him for about three years--with a summer taken off to come back here to roost. (It wasn't exactly an honorable discharge, but he took me back.) In all that time listening to him talk about food--and he talks a lot, and nearly always about food--he kept circling back to a few key experiences: working for Roger Verge in Provence, the precision of Joel Robuchon's kitchen, and his French-born grandmother's cooking at their farm in rural Connecticut. Among other things he talked about how in the fall his grandparents would rake all the leftover garden roots together and bury them in the ashes of a large brushfire. Late in the day when the fire died down they'd uncover the vegetables, peel them, and disgorge their soft, pudding-like insides onto his grandmother's good country bread.
No doubt that Bouley's cuisine was influenced by his time with Roger Verge, a pioneer in the '70's and '80's in leading French food away from its heavy, reduced meat sauces to lighter, fresher sauces based on vegetable pulps and juices. But there's no doubt that his own personal cooking style was enriched by his epiphany with the ash-baked pulps. So many of the sauces and Bouley and Danube (his Austrian restaurant and locus of my first serious restaurant job, R.I.P.) were based on so many dabs of different vegetable purees, which we made by baking vegetables overnight in their skins--not under a head of ashes, but to softness nonetheless. I remember the Ocean Herbal sauce, for example, an amazing bright green sauce that we served with seared scallops (scored deeply before sauteeing so that they looked like browned, waving anenomes) and squirrelly little squid bodies, so young they needed just a split-second against the hot metal to curl. The sauce required a spoonful of onion puree, a dab of gray-green fennel puree, a squirt of each chive, basil and dill oils, just a spoonspit of garlic puree and a ladleful of fresh clam water.
We also made beet puree, often used to thicken a red wine reduction, which became a sauce for the lobster dish. There was caviar on that one, of course.
At the thought of caviar I broke my reverie and got up to fetch the foil. I wrapped the beets I'd dug the day before, in bundles of two and three depending on size. Before going to sleep I pushed them down into the deep bed of coals and raked a thick coverlet of ash over them.
I woke up fretting that the coals had been too hot and that the beets had surely incinerated to black balls of coal, but I unwrapped the foil packs to find these beauties--soft, yes, but not charred to smithereens by any means.
They were incredibly soft--much more so than my usual baked beets. This one gooshed out with a squeeze. Beet lotion.
They peeled easily, though, and in the end I had a bowl of rough-looking egg-shaped beet roots, some with circle-shaped char sores--the most delicious, smoky parts. I started to dice them roughly, as I usually cut beets, but then I changed my course and started ripping them into chunks. It felt more right. I then spotted the bowl of cherries at my elbow and started ripping a few of those in half, shoving the pits to the side. In the grip of a total Austrian daydream now, I fired a small pan on the stove and added a little oil and a handful of beetle-shelled green pumpkin seeds. As they popped I flipped them in waves, threw salt at them, and remembered fondly that olive green oil that leaks from them as they heat and turn crisp. I poured them onto the beets, gave a good stir and tipped the entire bowl onto a small platter. With a shake of balsamic vinegar (thumb on the hole) and a few scrapings from a block of parmesan, I had it. In combination the salad was smoky, sweet, tangy and crunchy, but the beets were just out of line, way better than roasted beets and leagues superior to boiled. They tasted earthy. Just as they should.
Fire-roasted Beets with Cherries and Pumpkin Seeds
2 pounds red beets (about 8)
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
juice of 1/2 lemon
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup sweet cherries, pitted and torn in half
1/3 cup pumpkin seeds
shaved parmesan cheese for garnish
salt and pepper
Wrap the beets in three foil packs, doubling the foil and pinching the edges to close up any holes. Bury the packages in the hot coals of a campfire and leave until morning.
Unwrap the packages and peel the beets. Tear the beets into bite-sized pieces.
To toast the pumpkin seeds, heat a saute pan over medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and the pumpkin seeds. When they begin to pop, flip the seeds to cook them evenly. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss until most of the seeds have popped and crisped. Transfer to a plate.
Mix together the beets and cherries. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, the balsamic vinegar, lemon juice and remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil. Slide onto a platter and garnish with the pumpkin seeds and shavings of parmesan (or pecorino) cheese.