Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Scarlet Beet Brownies and the Great Ingredient Hunt

First zucchini in chocolate cake, now beets in your brownies.

Yes, I'm slowly taking over the world with my sneak-attack veggies, bastardizing symbols of American cooking with local produce. And don't expect me to stop anytime soon.

I know, I know, brownies are pretty sacred. Adding beets is bound to be a bit of a scandal. When I made these for a group of strangers, who lacked the bulk of my friends' tolerance for my experimental baking, more than a few eyebrows were raised and the plate remained pretty full for a while. And then they tried them. Once the word got out that they were, well, amazing, they didn't last long.

Hey, no one complains about carrot cake or sweet potato pie. If people can put their root-vegetable blinders on for those treats, why shouldn't they be able to do the same for the beet? Besides, beets are a primary source of processed sugar. It seems only natural to add them to a dessert.

(For a snazzy and confusing schematic of the process of turning sugarbeets into sugar, click here!)

Before I get back to the beets, I'll clue you in on what I was doing on the East Coast, feeding a bunch of strangers. My sister, Casey, is getting her PhD at Princeton, and is also a major player in their student-run organic garden, The Garden Project,
located in a great new plot surrounded by wild grapes, huge trees, and a picturesque ivy-covered stone wall. Overseen by the Office of Sustainability, The Garden Project has provided the Princeton food service with herbs and produce, and also hopes to use the garden as a community gathering spot and educate the campus about the American food system and the benefits of eating locally and sustainably. My family flew out to New Jersey last week to help with a garden party, showing off the garden to administrative VIPs and celebrating with friends (the aforementioned group of strangers). My dad constructed a fire pit and a great fruit stand/sink/prep station for the garden, and I painted the sign:

It was also my dad's birthday, my little sister's soon-to-be birthday, and a few weeks until the start of school - plenty of reasons to celebrate. In my life, the word "celebration" is pretty much synonymous with food. Cooking food, making a big deal out of presenting food, and eating far too much of it is how my family commemorated any big event. Or small one, for that matter. The element we've added to this ritual of celebration is the search for the best ingredients. The ladies of the family piled in the car and trekked around New Jersey gathering the best of the best the region had to offer.

We stopped at a Pennsylvania Dutch farmers market to sample cheeses and pick up "green pickles" (which were basically really fresh, salty cucumbers), four huge watermelons, and, one of my all-time favorite foods, Amish dilly beans. I adore Amish markets - so many smiling faces, handmade treats, and lots and lots of samples of everything from pickled kielbasa to peaches and cream cheese spread. The watermelons were amazing, definitely at the peak of their season.

Next stop was a farm stand known for its amazing corn. We got four dozen ears of corn, thinking we would be able to roast it on the fire pit Dad built, but we didn't get red-tape approval for an impromptu inferno of flaming doom on Princeton grounds (or something like that). It hardly mattered, though, as the corn was so sweet and creamy, full of just-picked-from-the-stalk flavor, we ate it raw.

After the farm stand, we went to a local farm that is well-known for its plentiful pick-your-own crops. From raspberries and blackberries, to peaches (yes, pick your own peaches!) and cut-your-own flowers, I'd been to this stop a few times before. Last fall, Casey and I found perfect pumpkins and ate hot apple-cider doughnuts before picking loads of raspberries.

This time were on a mission to buy some perfect blueberries, and this was a place to be. Now, for me, pick-your-own trips mean eating as much as I can possibly find, and occasionally tossing a few into the basket. Luckily, the rest of the family had a bit more restraint, and we managed to walk away with a few pints of gorgeous blues. The epitome of local eating, a berry picked off the bush and eaten immediately is, really, a taste of heaven.

Blueberries in tow, we then drove to Casey's favorite local farm (where she is a CSA shareholder, and the source of our local meal's tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, carrots, and beets) to say hello to the happy cows and buy a ridiculous amount of fresh mozzarella. We got caught in the heaviest downpour I'd seen in years, but I managed to snap a shot of the sweetest baby cow before making a mad dash to the car to save my camera before dancing in the rain with my sisters.

We used the mozzarella and a bunch of beautiful tomatoes and fresh basil from Casey's CSA box to make a lovely
Insalata Caprese. I'm not usually a fan of mozzarella - I find it can be a bit spongy - but this stuff was so fresh, it was amazing. And you can pretty much top anything with perfect tomatoes and a basil leaf and I'll swoon.

In the end, the Great Ingredient Hunt was a smashing success, and was a great way to spend a vacation. I love nothing more than cooking and eating with my family, and we definitely have transitioned to local, sustainable preparation without sacrificing any of our quantity, quality, and taste. This kind of eating, celebrating the season and connecting, quite directly, with where our food comes from, can be so amazingly rewarding. At the party, I looked at our table full of fresh, colorful dishes, and realized we had created memories for every ingredient. That meal was more than a number of calories or a tally of complicated methods, it was a veritable collection of experience. Tasting the cheese, I saw the baby cow and felt the huge raindrops, popping a blueberry I heard the laughter of my sisters and the buzzing of bees. This is what it feels like to connect with our food system, to respect the earth, and celebrate to the fullest. And it went off without a hitch. The trickiest part was cooking everything in Casey's small apartment kitchen, but even that went relatively smoothly, save for a bit of a fiasco with the food processor. Really, who thought it would be a good idea to put an unsealable spout pointing towards the floor? Ah, a bit of beet puree never killed anyone. But it does make killer brownies.

Scarlet Beet Brownies and Fresh Blueberries
  • 3/4 cup of beet puree*
  • 4 ounces of good-quality chocolate chips
  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • pinch salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 7 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs, room temperature
*I used dark red and candy-striped beets. I peeled them and then boiled them until they were easily pierced with a fork. I then pureed them in a food processor and measured out the 3/4 cup. The rest of it was delicious with a bit of butter, salt and pepper. Also, the puree is absolutely gorgeous and can be used as a stand-out side dish.
  1. Heat oven to 350F.
  2. Melt chocolate over double-boiler. Set aside.
  3. Whisk flour with baking powder and salt and set aside.
  4. Cream butter and sugar together. And vanilla and eggs, one at a time, until the mixture is creamy. Add melted chocolate, beet puree, and flour mixture. Mix well.
  5. Pour batter into 9 x 13 baking pan and bake for 30 minutes.
  6. Let cool and cut into triangles. Serve with fresh-picked blueberries and share with family.


  1. Hey, Oakley, those beet brownies were delicious, and the thunderstorm while picking the blueberries will be in my memory forever.
    Love you, Country Rhodes

  2. I am not a fan of beets but even I would eat these brownies. Great photos!

    P.S. It's nice to see a fellow Portland Food Blogger out there!

  3. frankly, this sounds like one of the best trips ever. you did so much awesome stuff and it looks like you consumed some pretty fabulous foods, too. yep, color me jealous. :)

  4. Your my hero with those brownies. I just made beet pasta. Kids loved it- not a clue. This was an amazing vacation. I would love to do all that.

  5. I am so making these tomorrow - just so happens we have a healthy crop of beets that need to be used.


    P.S. Did you know you won an award over at my place recently? I think you may have been out of town - but if you want to check it out - c'mon over.

  6. They just look amazing! Better than usual brownies. That's a great idea, beet in brownies.... And you're right, using roots in desserts should be more common! Beet is not even a vegetable, it's considered s a fruit anyway... (let's make the rooty-dessert revolution!)

  7. Who would have thought beets and chocolate (brownies) could even go together! I'm intrigued by this combo and hope to try it soon!

  8. Hey, Allison. This is Martha from the airplane. I love your food blog! What a great idea to hide veggies in desserts. I've actually blended up broccoli and put it in my meatloaf so my husband would eat it! He liked it, too. I'm glad you enjoyed the East!

  9. Imagine my surprise when one of the food blogs that I read turns out to be written by you! I looked for that fortune cookie poem you wrote when you were in sixth grade, but my system of organization failed me again. I am sure that it will turn up in a special place years from now. Your photographs are beautiful, and I tried your watermelon salad a bit ago which was delicious. I still love reading your writing and your talent still impresses after all these years!

  10. Mom - I love the sound of thunder and lightning, and singing for you in the fields was great!

    pam - Thank you! The Portland blogosphere is really full of talented foodies, isn't it?

    grace - It really was an amazing trip. It was the perfect time of year to be in New Jersey.

    Lori - Kids love this recipe! I'm usually not a big fan of having to "trick" kids to eat healthy foods - but it seems we can never get enough fiber and veggies into our diets, so why not include dessert!

    angie - Wow, thanks! I'll have to pick my own winners soon.

    Zoé - Viva La Revolución!

    Joelen - Thanks, Tell me if you like them!

    Martha - I'm so glad you stopped by! It was great to meet you and I hope you find lots of recipes to try!

    Emily - Oh my goodness, how wonderful. The internet really is an astounding thing - I've made friends with foodies in Australia, and know you've found me, too! This made my day :)

  11. I'll have to try those next. I love the concept and I bet they are super moist and delicious. I love finding new ways to use up the beets I get from my CSA. Thanks.

  12. We may be BFF forever, but I will never let you molest my desserts with vegetables.

  13. I was looking for a recipe for beets because I have a share at a local organic farm and my kids won't eat anything that is not pizza or PB&J, and I found your recipe for these brownies. This is so funny - I immediately recognized the sign for the berry picking at Terhune Orchard. That is right down the street from me - so it's good to know your recipe was inspired by my hometown local food and thought you should know the tradition is being carried on. I'll be making the brownies tomorrow!

  14. hi! i know this is an older post, but i was searching for beet brownie recipes and came across yours. I made them today, and they were wonderful! thanks for sharing your recipe. :)

  15. God! I am going crazy going through you absolutely gorgeous blog. Beet brownies, I want them NOW. I already bookmarked 3 recipes and now one more to try from your blog. How did I miss your blog all this while?! :)

    Sailu @ Indian Recipes