Sunday, September 9, 2012

Off the Shelf: Beet Salad from The Silver Palate

 My friend Robert once called beets "the organ meat of the vegetable world." He was right. Like gizzards, kidneys and such, fresh beets are have a sort of muddy spiritual darkness about them. They come from a inside a living thing in a significantly different way than your average eatables. The beet is like a hard little heart you pull from the earth, and like a heart, it seems to still pulse with life's energy, while it smells like a dead thing. Many people dislike or even fear them, and few know how to cook them anymore.

 Personally, I love 'em.

 As a kid, I don't think I ever ate fresh ones-- they were one of the few vegetables my cook-from-scratch mother bought only in canned or bottled form, along with sauerkraut and spinach. The one time she tried to make fresh spinach back then, it was still too sandy for us kids, and we hated it. Now we all love the fresh, but that is easy when it comes in flat baby leaves, pre-washed in bags.

 Beets are another story.
  Fresh out of the ground, they look like something an alchemist might want to work with-- gnarly, unattractive, dirt-colored and sprouted with strange hairs.  When I peel them, the detritus could almost be a pile of rat tails and hide.
 Discussions about beets on cooking forums tend to make the best methods for preparing them seem arcane and complicated. But it's not tough to cook fresh beets. It's not even scary, unless you're wearing white, about which I'll say-- Don't. Or you'll soon be wearing white splattered with fuschia. Aside from that, all you need is a cutting board you don't mind getting temporarily stained, a vegetable peeler, and a heavy, sharp knife-- a 6" chef's knife, if you have one.

 Then you can handle them in several ways: roasting them whole and peeling afterwards, peeling them first and roasting whole or chopped, steaming them, peeled or not, or peeling and boiling them chopped. You can even grate them and serve them raw, which is often more appealing to people that believe they dislike the beet.

 I like to peel them first, no matter what. The stain washes off my hands immediately this way, and although I may get a few less of the nutrients that were hanging out under the skin, I'm sanguine about the loss.

In the classic and incredible original Silver Palate Cookbook, beets appear in several lovely dishes, but my favorite of them is the Beet and Roquefort Salad with Walnuts. A vegan variation leaves off the cheese in favor of a sprinkling of fresh dill, and having made each version repeatedly, I can say happily that either is simply delicious.

 I've owned the SP cookbook since my early twenties, and this recipe is the reason! I first tasted it at my late ex-MIL's home, after watching her make it. So enjoyable was the salad, I begged to borrow the book and it's companion tome, The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook. It was tough giving them back, but finally I did, and soon after, purchased the pair for my own in hardcover through a cookbook club. I've been using both books, for recipes, tips, and inspiration ever since. I'm happy to share this wonderful, seasonal salad with you now, and so honor the memory of Anginette; a generous, creative cook who taught me several key lessons of the kitchen, and of entertaining, and of family life.

Beet and Roquefort Salad with Walnuts 

8-10 medium sized beets
3 Tbsp red wine vinegar
3 Tbsp walnut oil
1/2 C shelled walnut halves
1/4 lb imported Roguefort cheese
freshly ground black pepper, to taste

 Wash beets well, and trim stems and roots without piercing the skin. Drop the beets into a large kettle of boiling salted water and cook until tender, 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the beets. Drain, cool, and peel beets, and cut into julienne.

 In a mixing bowl toss the beets gently with the vinegar and walnut oil. Taste, and add more of either if you like; there should be just enough to coat the beets. Cover and chill until serving time.

 To serve, toss the walnuts with the chilled beets and arrange in a shallow serving bowl. Allow to return to room temperature. Crumble the Roquefort evenly over the top (or sprinkle generously with chopped fresh dill), and grind on black pepper to taste. Serve immediately. 6 to 8 portions.

 That was how I first had it, although I believe Anginette simply sliced her beets. I sometimes do, too, but most often now, I roast the peeled, quartered beets in a Tbsp of olive oil, and use a little more oil in the viniagrette, not the full amount as given. (You may want to use paper towelling to dry the peeled beets on, before roasting, or do what I did and use an old purple napkin that won't take any harm from such use.)


 Today I cooked a pumpkin in the oven at the same time as the beets, and roasted the cleaned seeds in oil and sea salt-- so I'm using that oil, seeds removed, in place of the walnut oil, which I'm out of at the moment. The flavor from the pumpkin seeds should help replace the nuttiness, as will toasting the walnuts... using the oven on the second cool day of the month, I made sure to get my money's worth!

(ready to roast!)

 And I'm not chilling the salad, as written above. There are reasons for chilling the beets in their nutty oil-- it helps the simple, strong flavors penetrate them, and the vinegar does its job in the marinade better, too. My way of roasting them brings out their sweet earthiness enough that I can skip the chill if I want, and just let the dressed beets sit awhile before garnishing with the nuts and Roquefort.

 Another change I often make is to use a milder blue cheese, but add instead the bite of a tangier vinegar, like raspberry. I'll often add some dill along with all that. But this time, I've switched up the flavors a bit, roasting a clove of garlic alongside the beets for extra oomph, and sprinkling them beforehand with garam masala from Penzey's. I'm adding a handful of dried sweet cherries, the toasted walnuts are broken smaller to cover more ground, and as a final assault on tradition, I've put Champagne vinegar into the pumpkin-seed flavored oil to make the dressing. These small tweaks have turned an already yummy salad into the main dish of our Sunday Supper. The flavors are still clear and simple, but not as austerely perfect.


 And who could believe such a pretty meal came from those nasty looking roots?     

 Have a lovely evening. Peace, Mari


No comments:

Post a Comment