Line cooks around the metro just got a peak at Dante’s purgatorial vision of the afterlife during the historically hot holiday week. Photos of restaurant kitchen thermometers circulated around the social media universe, some of them reading 120 degrees. Line cooks have to cook in the heat—it’s their job (plus they secretly love the bragging rights). But, what do you do at home? What do you cook when the thermometer reaches damnation threshold? How about some heat-free cooking: maceration!
Maceration uses salt, sugar, or acidic liquids to soften and flavor fruits and vegetables, and can even make starchy vegetables—which usually require cooking—soft and edible without the use of heat. To understand how it works, you’ll need to dig deep and try and remember 7th grade science class—the day you did the osmosis experiment. Sprinkling a little salt on vegetables pulls out the moisture by creating an area of higher density near an area of lower density, separated by a semipermeable membrane. Those two areas of density seek to equalize, causing liquid to pass from inside the vegetables to outside, and softening the vegetable’s cells in the process. (Sorry, if I butchered that, Mr. Tysdale.)
Here is a maceration recipe that will make a convert out of all you beet haters out there and perk up some of your summer salads. For those of you who grew up with canned and mushy beets, try this fresh preparation. Start by tossing beets with a little salt, sugar, and vinegar. Watch the magic as the beets soften and go from starchy, raw and inedible, to macerated, tender and flavorful without ever sparking up the stove. Then mix in some vinaigrette, crumble a little feta, mince up mint for garnish, and rip into a crusty baguette.
2-3 medium beets (any variety, red, yellow, chioga)
1 ½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. sugar
1 tsp. white wine vinegar
2-3 Tbsp. vinaigrette (see recipe below)
Using a knife and a peeler for the skin, clean, trim and peel the beets of roots, skin, and leaves*—if present.
Slice the beets as thin as possible. If you have a mandolin, this is the time to use it. If not, get out your sharpest, thinnest knife, and make thin slices. If you try your best and still can’t get thin slices with your knife, give them another cut lengthwise, making matchsticks instead. The thinness is important. It allows the salt and sugar to more easily do its job and soften the raw beets more quickly.
In a mixing bowl, toss the beets in the salt, sugar, and vinegar and allow them to macerate for roughly 10 minutes, mixing a few times to distribute the salt evenly during the process.
After the beets soften, start to “bleed,” and give up some liquid, mix them in the vinaigrette. Allow the beets to sit in the vinaigrette for at least 20 minutes. Taste the beets for salt/sugar and acid/vinegar, adding more as needed. The beets store well for a few days.
Makes roughly 1 cup
1 tsp. minced mint
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
Grind of black pepper
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
¾ cup light flavored olive oil (preferably not extra virgin, too strong flavor)
Trim, peel, and mince the shallot and put in a medium mixing bowl large enough to whisk all the ingredients for the vinaigrette.
Toss the shallots with the salt. Wait five to ten minutes for the shallots to soften and release moisture (more maceration, used here to soften the flavor of raw shallots).
Remove the mint leaves from the stems and finely mince them with a chefs knife and a rocking motion cut.
Stir the minced mint, Dijon mustard, black pepper, and vinegar into the macerated shallots.
Slowly whisk in the oil. Taste the vinaigrette and add salt, vinegar, or oil, as needed.
This vinaigrette stores well for most of the week and can be served with any salad from simple mixed greens to pasta, potato, or tomato.
Serve with salad greens, feta, minced mint, and a baguette.
*Save the greens for when the temperature drops and sauté them with a little garlic, as you might spinach or other tender/tough greens.