Valentine’s Day

Fine Dining

The imminent arrival of Valentine’s Day gets some people thinking of the color red, yummy-but-not-so-healthy desserts, heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, candlelight dinners, cupids on Hallmark cards, and romance between two people of the opposite sex.

This past week, not thinking of V-Day at the time, I cooked my first batch of beet borscht for 2011. It’s a great winter menu item–warm and hearty with a jewel red color. So why not think of it as a V-Day treat. BTW, for all you folks who turn up your noses at the thought of vegetables, especially the likes of beets, the borscht actually tastes great. Maybe some day, I will write the story of how I learned to like beets in the 1970s. Prior to some friends farming the garden in my back yard in Fargo and giving me fresh beets to try, I turned my nose up at beets, too.

All that a cook needs for my kind of borscht is water, vegetable stock, or chicken stock; onion, garlic, beets and beet greens, cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes, perhaps green peppers and carrots, a little lemon juice and brown sugar or honey, salt and pepper. Of course, there are plenty of other recipes for borscht. Wheatsfield Coop in Ames has two or three pots of soup made in its kitchen every day as part of its hot food and salad bar. I love their borscht, but it seems mainly to be cabbage, beef, and broth with seasonings but with little clue that there are beets in it.

I learned to make borscht from the 1986 edition of Laurel’s Kitchen Cookbook. It contains only vegetarian recipes, but I can use them as intended or adapt them. Sometimes, I use chicken stock for the borscht, and often, I use more kinds of vegetables than the recipe calls for. But it’s still a very basic soup that is not doctored with a lot of commercial or unhealthy additives. Also, I use tricks to avoid the kitchen getting splattered with red beet juice and use as much locally-sourced produce as possible. BTW, there are plenty of good reasons to use locally-grown food, not the least of which is to help our state’s economy and enhance the health of our communities. And there is a bi-partisan bill at the state legislature for Iowa to be more proactive in promoting the use of local foods.

Last summer, I grew beets. They are not the most prolific vegetables that I grow but were picture-perfect. At harvest, I cook beets and their greens for fresh eating, but I also think ahead to winter. Immediately upon picking the ones that I plan to “put by,” I cut off, blanch, and freeze the greens. Then I simmer the roots, put them in cool water, and peel them. In previous years, I would then freeze them whole in Ziploc bags. That meant I had a beet juice mess in the kitchen at preservation time and again in the winter when I thawed, sliced, and put the beets into the soup mix. The worst mess happened one Sunday morning when I was under time pressure to get to the Unitarian Fellowship but first wanted to finish preparing a pot of borscht for a soup lunch I was in charge of there. And it seemed important to puree some of the soup. To make a long story short, it is never fun to return home to a messy kitchen, especially one with red liquid splattered on the walls.

So armed with a new strategy, after I peeled the beets last summer, I added a minimal amount of water and pureed them in the blender, then froze the puree in plastic containers. That meant that when I made borscht this week, the mess of beet juice was behind me.
So here’s what I did to make the borscht. I got a quart of homemade stock I had made months ago from a chicken from Audubon County Family Farms out of the freezer, put it in a stock pot and brought it to a boil.

I added other ingredients in an order based on how long they would need to simmer. First, I scrubbed and sliced unpeeled fingerling potatoes from the Huber Family Farm and put them in the pot. Then I chopped and added green cabbage from Wheatsfield.

Unfortunately, I did not think ahead last summer like I had in previous years when I either grew cabbage or got some from the farmer’s market. Cabbage is easy to blanch and have in the freezer ready to go into a soup.

Then I got out a bag of frozen Anaheim peppers. I had picked them from my garden last summer, washed, cut them in half, seeded them, then spread them on cookie sheets in the freezer, but when solid, I transferred them to Ziploc bags for long-term freezer storage.

While the initial ingredients were simmering and softening, I put a skillet on the stove, then added olive oil and garlic. It wasn’t your common image of the two ingredients.

Last summer, I also harvested garlic, peeled off the paper-like skin, then pureed the cloves with olive oil and poured the mixture into ice cube trays. When the cubes were solid, I also put them into freezer bags and back into freezer for long-term storage. I have never had the sense to chop and freeze onions from my garden or local markets.

During the harvest season, I have a flawed notion that I can store onions well enough that they will last through winter, but that has never proven to be successful. So I grabbed the only onion I could find (a store bought one), chopped, and added it to the skillet.

Then there was the waiting time for those ingredients to cook and soften. Eventually, I added more items to the stock pot: the sautéed garlic and onions; chopped beet greens; a quart of crushed tomatoes that I had grown and canned last summer; a couple of cups of frozen, pureed beets; two teaspoons of bottled lemon juice; two teaspoons of brown sugar (I have been known to use honey from the Coon Rapids area); salt and pepper. Sometimes, I have swirled a dollop of sour cream into a bowl of borscht, giving the soup an intriguing design. But I had none on hand this week. Plus I have sensitivities to too much dairy.

The soup was great all by itself with an awesomely, beautiful, jewel-like color. The taste and texture were just as great. My heart was warmed many times over: by growing and finding locally-sourced products; putting food by; preparing the soup; savoring not only the taste but also the beauty; being nourished in body and soul; and being warmed in body and heart. And of course, I have leftovers to eat by myself or share with friends. What a better way to honor Valentine’s Day. And yes, as I set my table to photograph a bowl of soup this afternoon, Micah, one of my two cats, decided to explore, and now she sits by me as I write at my computer.

V-Day has not always been an easy one for me, especially considering that I am a single person, and the falderal surrounding the day and emphasis on couples in romantic relationships reminds me of being a minority in a couple’s world. From my humble perspective, society puts too much emphasis on certain kinds of romantic love, and V-Day is something like Christmas in that many people feel bummed during the holiday season because they have idealistic expectations that are unmet.

Also, a sense of well-being and feeling loved and at home in the universe is not dependent on Hollywood standards of romantic relationships. I value friendship, and sometimes friendship as well as the beauty of solitude seem under-rated.

I think of the term “Sacred Heart” as in the “Sacred Heart High School” or sung in hymns. My spiritual disciplines include, but are not limited to, journal-writing in a spiral-bound notebook or with my laptop computer as well as drawing rudimentary art with colored Crayola markers in a 14×17-inch sketchpad journal.

I am reminded of a drawing from last week. Admittedly, with this kind of artwork, some one other than me who viewed it would not see in it what I interpreted from it nor understand what I experienced while creating it. However, from my perspective, what emerged was a large, radiant red heart and a person–the heart much larger than the person, yet the person being supported by the heart, one with it, and celebrating it. Not a couple, but one person. The heart represented a love not restricted to what people believe theologically, but a love that is at the core of world religions, faith systems, and philosophies. The love cannot be boxed by dogma. It is not fully fathomable but is numinous, mysterious, part of the universe, greater than and yet within each of us.

People can learn about themselves and grow through relationships. People can also learn to love from relationships–beginning with what they learn from parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, neighborhood mentors, teachers, brothers and sisters, school mates, friends, partners, and others. But as wonderful as relationships can be, a deep-seeded love of self is at the core of being a healthy human being. Such an attitude of well-being can enhance relationships. It can also help people see the best in other others and be just to them, even when they are different.

I mentioned earlier that the Iowa legislature has (or at least had) a bill to increase support of locally-grown food. The House also has partisan, majority support for a resolution to amend the state constitution, declaring: “Marriage between one man and one woman shall be the only legal union valid or recognized in this state.” There has been much heated discourse about the resolution on the floor of the legislature, including a hearing, and in the media. I have read several articles in the Des Moines Register. I have also read many on-line comments. I understand that people can have radically different perspectives, but I certainly don’t like the vitriol. It is hard to understand how proponents of the bill, who claim a Christian basis for supporting it, can spew more of what seems like hate (or at least major insensitivity) rather than the kind of love that Jesus teaches in the Bible.

Since I have both the privilege and responsibility of being the editor of this Web site, and there are probably readers who strongly support the amendment and others who strongly oppose it–with a range of perspectives between those ends of the spectrum–I need to be fair and cautious in adding my own two cents even though I have strong feelings. There is a time, though, to speak up for justice even in platforms such as an alumni Web site that pretty much is apolitical.

I am reminded of Rolfe High School alumnus, Stuart Webb, of the class of 1949. He was the third generation of the Webb family who ran Webb’s Drug Store on Main Street. It sold everything from prescription and over-the-counter drugs to wallpaper and paints to cameras and film to mixed roasted nuts and boxed chocolates to school supplies and more. The store also had a comic book room and soda fountain where people liked to hang out and the Webb family and workers were fair and hospitable. I liked sitting on one of the tall stools at the soda fountain, ordering a lemon-lime phosphate or cherry Coke and feeling like the person behind the counter truly cared about who I was.

Stuart and his mother Jane Webb took over the management of the store in the mid-1950s after Stuart’s father, Morris, died. However, Stuart soon discerned that he did not feel called to be a pharmacist even though he was certified to be one. So he and his wife and children moved to Iowa City, and he earned a law degree from the University of Iowa. Then they settled in Minneapolis, where decades later, he and a colleague began the collaborative law movement.

Getting to the point–the Rolfe schools invited Stuart to give the commencement address one year in the late 1960s. (For the record, I graduated in 1963.) Usually, such events are apolitical–a little fluff, wisdom, good will, a way to send the new graduates into the world and honor one of Rolfe’s own alumni who had been popular and was perceived to be successful in his career. But Stuart talked about racial issues. The air in the gymnasium was more somber than usual. I got the sense that people were uncomfortable or embarrassed that a speaker would use a high school commencement platform to talk about a difficult and sensitive topic. There was an awkward silence in the car when I rode home with my parents after the ceremonies.

I admired Stuart’s sense of ethics, vision of how the world was changing, and courage to speak truth. His remarks could easily have risked losing the community’s fondness for him. Fortunately, he was wise and gentle–not in anyone’s face, which would have done no good in terms of getting across his message.

I certainly don’t want to be in anyone’s face about same sex marriage in the context of this Web site, but I do encourage readers to tap into their deep sense of being loved and at home in the universe when considering the merits or lack of merits of the proposed resolution. That kind of spiritual awareness is far more important than dogma. For those who are Christian, a good question would be “What would Jesus say or do?” in relation to the proposed amendment. What would he say to or how would he act toward those couples who love each other but are of the same sex, and therefore, different than the traditional definition of marriage? My hope is that Iowans will let the state’s tradition of fairness and an attitude of “live and let live” predominate.

My best to you for Valentine’s Day whether you are on your own, with a partner, good friend/s, family member/s, or beloved pet/s. May your heart be warm and nourished.


Note: this article along with several photos was originally posted on the Rolfe High School alumni website that Helen created in 1999 and hosted for over a decade. The site has been dormant since about 2010, but the original version of the article can still be found at: