Near enough to 10 years ago now I started out with my first real kitchen job. The place was pretty small, and to cut costs the owner insisted that we drive out to the produce markets at Flemington, about 30 minutes drive west of Sydney's CBD. Flemington markets are the central fruit and vegetable market for Sydney's wholesale trade, so in the main it is restaurants, grocery stores and supermarkets that do their shopping here. Sure you can rock up on the weekend and buy a small bag of potatoes if you wish, but during the week this place is pure business, and to do business with these wiry, wily traders, you need to keep their hours – very rude hours indeed.
The knock at my door came at 4:30am. The restaurant's owner was sadly on time, and as we piled into his van I bleerily and silently cursed myself for not hitting the hay until midnight the night before. The drive out was virtually wordless. All this changed once we rolled through the gates to what can only be described as a self contained fresh produce city. This place had cafes, it had a pub, it had its own population – it was massive, thriving, and a genuine eye opener.
Bananas alone were housed in 3 sheds each the size of football fields, and it stretched on from there – a shed for potatoes, an area for mushrooms, fruits of every hue. Plus forklifts running between each with alarming pace and utter disregard for pedestrian safety. 2 massive sheds housed what are known as the “growers”. These held the little market guys selling exotica – cha plu, jicama, pak chee farang, waterlily stems. After we downed the most serious espresso coffee to pass my lips (made by Italians, naturally) and I started to wake a little, the shock of it all started to hit home – this place was jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring.
Sadly, a few weeks of heading to Flemington at that ungodly hour, then backing up with 12 hour days at the restaurant started to take its toll. I haven't visited the place in years, and these days we have a little cheats method of finding out what is cooking out at Flemington. The Market Report. Our vegetable providore is good enough to provide us with a weekly update of the best stuff on sale, and last week 2 of the stars were golden beetroot and green garlic. Golden beetroot is a wonderful variant of the regular gear. It's pretty much the same deal, only once peeled the interior is a seductive, deep gold. Soup made with golden beetroot tastes pretty much the same as with the regular, but the wildly different colour plays tricks on the mind – try serving this up without first telling your guests what it is and stand back for the fun. It looks like pumpkin soup – but it aint pumpkin... hang on..?
Green garlic is a wonderful spring crop that is basically the green shoots of garlic. They look like stout stems of green onion (scallions), but have a deliciously muted garlic flavour. Here they are quickly sauteed and mixed with goats cheese feta to make a heady spread that is slathered onto croutons, then set adrift in the soup before serving. The goats cheese is the kicker here, so if you can't find goats feta, I suggest substituting a young chevre, or any other soft and mild goats cheese, rather than a supermarket feta.
Trim the stems and leaves from the beetroot and discard. Heat an oven to 220 °C (440 °F). Scrub the beetroot to remove any dirt. Place the beetroot into a baking dish along with the whole garlic, 2 Tbs of the olive oil, some sea salt and fresh ground pepper. Toss well, then cover with foil. Place into the oven and roast for 30 – 40 minutes. Test to see if they are done – a fork will easily sink right through the middle when they are ready. The timing will vary greatly dependent on their size. When cooked, remove from the oven and set aside to cool. Turn the oven down to 180 °C (360 °F).
Using a bread knife, cut 12 thin slices from the stale baguette or loaf. Place onto a baking tray and brush with some of the remaining olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Place into the oven for 10 minutes, or until they are crisp and golden brown.
Heat a small frypan to medium heat and add 1 Tbs of the olive oil. Sweat the green garlic for about 4 or 5 minutes, until it is just soft. Tip into a bowl and allow to cool, then add the goats cheese, some salt and pepper. Using a fork, mix well so the mix is thoroughly combined, cover, then set aside in the fridge til ready.
When the beetroot are cool, peel them by rubbing off the skins with your fingers. They should slip off quite easily. Heat a large pot to medium and add the butter and remaining olive oil. When bubbling add the onion, leek and chopped garlic. Cook for 4 or 5 minutes until softened and smelling heavenly sweet. Add the peeled beetroot (chopped if they are large) and potato. Stir well and cook for 5 minutes. Add the stock and increase the heat. When bubbling, reduce the heat to a simmer, cover and cook for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly.
Ladle the soup into a food processor and whizz to a fine puree. Place the soup back into the rinsed-out pot and bring to the simmer. Season well with sea salt, then ladle into 6 waiting bowls. Brush each of the croutons with a generous amount of the goats cheese mixture (careful, they snap easily) and float 2 onto each bowl of soup. Grind over a goodly portion of pepper and serve piping hot.