Monday, June 18, 2012

Divide and Conquer
What’s cooking? Roasted Beet Salad

I overheard a couple of young women talking at the farmer’s market this morning. One of them said that her father had made a salad over the weekend but had put anchovies in it. You could hear the disappointment in her voice. The other said, “You know, anchovies are a divisive ingredient.” Then they launched into a loose discussion about other foods that are “divisive ingredients.” One said “Cilantro.” The other offered “Jalapeños.” And as I stood in front of the gorgeous display at the organic farm stand, I thought, “Beets.”

Of course, I can think of others; and in retrospect, “divisive” (as in “Tending to cause disagreement or hostility between people”) is not a bad adjective to describe foods that generate solidly positive or negative feelings. Few shades of gray, for instance, among proponents (or detractors) of sardines or eggplant. Can you think of others?

My own family is evenly divided over beets. One son likes them, the other does not. And my husband is happy for me to cook them, as long as he doesn’t have to eat them. Which is fine with me, because I love beets.

So I was thrilled to find a new and remarkably simple beet salad this week. I’m throwing myself into the Manhattan scene this summer, so I’m encouraging friends in the area to meet me for lunch there. The latest such rendezvous was at Morrell Wine Bar, in Rockefeller Center. They do a brisk lunch business, but no one rushed my friend and me as we sat for a good two hours. I always want to taste everything in a new restaurant, so I love the new trend of offering a selection of “small plates,” which enables me to order a couple of items and not feel that I’ve overeaten. In addition to the beet salad, I had the appetizer portion of pan-seared diver scallops with coconut polenta, cilantro and lime. The scallops were perfectly cooked – tender but with caramelized edges – and the polenta was like silk. (I’ve gotta figure out how to make that!) And whatever they did to generate a liquified cilantro/lime was the final magic touch.

Back to the beet salad. There’s nothing complicated about cooking beets. The best way is to bake them whole, without removing the skin. The baking process makes the skin slip off with amazing ease – smoother than a bride getting out of a négligée.

Roasted Beet Salad, adapted from Morrell Wine Bar
(Serves 4)

1½-2 pounds red beets, preferably none larger than 6-7 ounces, as the smaller ones are sweeter
½ cup crème fraiche
2 teaspoons lemon juice
¼ teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon grated lemon peel (optional)
¼ cup chopped and lightly toasted pistachio nuts

Preheat oven to 400º.

Wipe the beets with a damp paper towel to remove any pieces of dirt. (There’s no need to scrub them, as you’ll be taking the skins off after baking, and the beets shouldn’t be wet when they go into the oven.) If your beets have the greens still attached, cut them off and save the greens for another time. Trim the stalks to a half-inch from the beets.

Place the beets in a covered casserole or a pan covered tightly with foil. Bake 30-45 minutes at 400º. Small beets will cook fully in 30 minutes; larger ones – 6-7 ounces – will take at least 45 minutes. Test for doneness by piercing the largest with a paring knife; if it goes in easily, they’re all done.

While the beets are cooking, stir together the crème fraiche, lemon juice, sugar, and lemon peel, and refrigerate.

When the beets are done, remove the lid or foil and let the beets cool enough to handle. Slip the skins off using a paper towel or by hand. (The Kitchen Goddess always wears rubber gloves in this process, as beet juice will definitely stain your hands.) Cut the beets into ½-inch dice, and refrigerate until ready to serve.

To serve, divide the beets into 4 small bowls (or pile onto lettuce leaves on a plate), drizzle each serving with 2 tablespoons of the crème fraiche, and sprinkle with the chopped pistachios.

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