BEET & ORANGE SALAD
If you like beets, you’ll LOVE this salad. If you DON’T like beets, this might convert you. And if this doesn’t, trust me– nothing will.
* * * * * * *
If you don’t mind me saying so, this salad (and I mean the recipe itself, not my example in the photo) is a work of freaking art… indeed, something I would serve to serious artists as an overture of acknowledgement to their God-given inner gifts. That being said, I take no credit for its creation… I just happen to be good (I think) at codifying and demystifying the inventions of others into reproducible, user-friendly forms.
To be fair, I’ve never heard of anyone actually craving beets. Maybe that’s because, more than any other vegetable, they taste so strongly of the medium in which they grow. I never went out of my way to eat them until my old business partner (Chef Cathy) taught me this particular preparation– an eclectic mix of basic and complex handiwork, a melange of delightfully contrasting flavors and textures. This dish also exhibits the influence of Chef Michael from my Northampton salad days (double entendre intended) in the early 1980’s. All in all, 90% of what I know about cooking can be traced to this pair of culinary savants.
Large mixing bowl
Very sharp (preferably serrated) knife
Small Pyrex Dish
1 15 oz. Bottle of Decent-Quality Commercial Italian Vinaigrette
3 Red Beets
1 Red Onion
1 Cup Walnut Halves
Fresh Creamy Goat Cheese
Blanched Broccoli (optional)
Pre-heat oven to 375º. Trim, wash, and dry well the beets, then wrap them individually in foil. Put them in a pyrex dish and roast until tender, i.e., easily penetrable with a toothpick. Set aside to cool.
While the beets are roasting,
Peel and slice the red onion– ¼” or so is a nice width. You want pieces big enough to eat with a fork, but not much bigger than that. Add onion slices to a large mixing bowl.
Add all of the bottled dressing to the sliced onions and toss. Why commercial instead of painstakingly homemade? Because commercial versions contain the very thickening agents that I otherwise strenuously avoid… and which work perfectly in this particular dish. Without such additives, vinaigrettes tend to break sooner or later, disagreeably concentrating all of the vinegar in one layer.
The most challenging part of this recipe involves the clementines. First, remove and reserve their zest with a microplane zester and add about ⅔ of it to the mixing bowl. (If you don’t have a microplane zester, you can’t make this dish.) Next, completely peel one clementine with a very sharp, preferably serrated knife, removing as much white pith as possible. Holding the peeled clementine over the mixing bowl in one hand, carefully remove one section at a time by slicing them out from between the white radii that separate them, dropping them into the bowl as you go. This is a serious pain in the ass, but well worth the effort because the result will be a quantum leap better than simply breaking the clementines down by hand into sections. The bowl will have caught any and all juice as it drips; after removing all the sections, give the carcass a final squeeze and discard. Avoid including the stray seed or two from these supposedly seedless fruits. Repeat with the other two clementines.
When the roasted beets have cooled enough to handle, carefully unwrap them. The roasting process works a special magic on beets, concentrating their texture, color, and flavor. (Boiling them does the exact opposite.) But beware ye– by thus concentrating their essence, you have basically converted their juices to nearly indelible ink… in a deep and dark shade of fuchsia that, while unarguably pretty, deserves only a minuscule presence in anyone’s permanent kitchen decor or clothing.
Carefully peel the beets, removing all skin while preserving as much flesh as possible. This is my favorite part of this process, for I feel as though I am exposing the garden’s equivalent of gem-grade ruby or garnet– almost but not quite translucent; visually throbbing, it seems, with their inherently earthy flavors beautifully translated for our enjoyment by the simple roasting process. Judiciously slice the beets into salad-sized pieces and add to the bowl. Then scrub your hands.
Add the walnuts, mix well, and adjust the seasoning (i.e., more zest if necessary.) Seal in a container and refrigerate this for a day or more, during which the following transformations will occur–
The onions will soften in both texture and flavor to utter deliciousness while lending a nice bite to the other ingredients. The beets will extend their color, flavor, and sweetness to the dressing that in return infuses the onions with subtle complexity. The orange will magically mitigate the earthiness of the beets, turning them halfway into candy. The walnuts will soften and lose all bitterness. And taken together, the whole thing might make you a little mad that you never knew how delicious beets could be. A further benefit is that the lowly commercial dressing upon which we built this dish will have metamorphosed into an unrecognizably delectable nectar that will deliciously drizzle itself over the greens beneath it. No tossing necessary. The way such seemingly antagonistic components so beautifully harmonize kind of reminds me of a painting–
Goat cheese is a particularly perfect foil for this result, so I like to serve this salad with cucumber slices generously shmeared with it. (A brief spell in the microwave makes goat cheese especially “shmear-able.”) I’ve added blanched broccoli in the photo above just to flesh it out. (I never use raw broccoli for anything.)
* * * * * * *
Wine, you say? If you must, a lot of people like dry rosés with their salads in summertime… mainly because A) they drink mostly pink in the summer; and B) salads are considered meals in the summer. While salads are notorious wine-killers, my thinking remains that it is hard to ruin a rosé because, as zombie movie aficionados well know, you can’t kill a man who’s already dead. (I never miss a chance to take a swipe at rosé.) But if I were charged with pairing the perfect wine for this dish, I’d probably opt for a Grüner Veltliner from either its traditional sources along the Austrian Danube or from its new-found second home in NY’s Finger Lakes region. No other grape variety– red or white– stands up to powerful vegetal flavors like “GV.”