Small, Good Things: Strange Bedfellows

By Joe Dizney

The composed summer salad (as opposed to the more familiar tossed) is a great medium for inventiveness and improvisation but offers an equal opportunity for disaster. I am thinking here of that legendary marshmallow, apple and celery-laden abomination, the Waldorf. Who was thinking what?

Granted, a combination of beets and strawberries could seem equally fraught with danger unless we deconstruct a bit before reassembly.

While we usually think of beets as winter fare, they are fresh and sweet right about now. A quick toss with olive oil and roasting accentuates both qualities.

With our extended British spring this year there’s a better chance than usual that the green tops — a peppery and underused relative of the spinach family — might just be fresh enough for use as a base. But as beet greens tend to bitterness, a more likely combination would be arugula or watercress or even a more benign lettuce.

Likely flavor companions are balsamic vinegar and citrus zest. Oranges, in particular, are a common companion. Likewise, something creamy will smooth out the proceedings. The crunch of roasted nuts adds contrasting texture.

But strawberries? Beets call for bright and sweet companions. Although they are not the traditional citrus combination, strawberries — also at their peak now — offer a distinctive acidity coupled with flowery finish.

Beet & Berry Salad (Photo by J. Dizney)

Strawberries also pair well with the balsamic vinegar, and a dollop of strawberry jam added to the shallot-balsamic dressing seals the combination. (Blueberries offer the same citrusy brightness for a late-summer composition.)

Regarding the vinaigrette, it is worth noting that the walnuts, hazelnuts and pistachios are each individually simpatico companions to both beets and strawberries, and the corresponding culinary nut oils are increasingly available (I found La Tourangelle roasted California pistachio oil at Foodtown in Cold Spring) and will add a subtle and special edge to the dressing. Pick any one variety of nuts and oil; all are equally harmonious.

For the creamy element, gorgonzola counters the earthiness of the beets but if you find that too strong, a crumbled chevre or goat cheese (or a dollop of crème fraîche, mascarpone or even Greek yogurt) will do.

A light sprinkling of fresh herbs — in this case, mint and tarragon —  celebrates the season, and pinch of orange zest adds color. Perhaps you judge the radish sprouts in the photo to be gratuitous, but they add another peppery bite.

Beet & Berry Salad
Serves four

1½ pound beets, peeled and cut into inch cubes
2 cups strawberries (quartered if large; halved if small)
3 cups cleaned watercress (or fresh beet greens, arugula or a combination)
½ shallot, minced
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil (or 2 tablespoons olive oil plus 2 tablespoons walnut, hazelnut or pistachio oil)
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon strawberry jam
Salt and black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon chopped mint
1 tablespoon tarragon leaves
1 tablespoon orange zest
4 ounces gorgonzola (or goat cheese)
¼ cup lightly toasted and chopped walnuts, hazelnuts or pistachios

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss cubed beets with 1 tablespoon olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Put the beets in loosely tented tinfoil packet and roast for at least an hour, until tender. Remove beets from foil and allow to cool in the refrigerator in a medium-sized mixing bowl covered with cling wrap.

For the dressing, whisk and macerate the shallots in the vinegar and jam with a pinch of salt and pepper for 10 minutes or so. Then drizzle in the oil(s) and whisk until emulsified.

Add the strawberries to the chilled beets. Add enough of the dressing to coat and toss to combine.

To serve, prepare a bed of watercress on four individual plates and mound some of the beets and berries over each. Add a drizzle more of the dressing and garnish each with some of the mint, tarragon and orange zest. Crumble the cheese over each plate and sprinkle the nuts evenly over all.

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