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HOME ON THE RANGE: Making a salad isn't so bad ... I guess
It was recently brought to my attention by an eagle-eyed, and apparently fit, reader that Home on the Range has been hitting the fats pretty heavily (last weeks Eggs Benedict, with its 2 sticks of butter and 6 egg yolks, sent him over the edge). He posed the question, Would it kill you to write about a salad? Well, no I suppose it wouldnt. The thing is, though, I dont like salads much, especially the salads I make at home. Theyre all boring: hum-drum lettuce, beige mushrooms, anemic carrot shavings, topped with some bottled brand of flavorless blue cheese dressing. Sometimes, when feeling especially frisky, I mix in a little French with the blue cheese. Zowie!
So, I sat down and really racked my brain. Have I ever eaten a truly desirable salad in my life? Have I ever looked at a menu and selected lettuce over a hamburger or a slab of juicy, succulent prime rib? And then I remembered the beet salad at Cafe Septieme on Capitol Hill in Seattle. Septieme itself is the kind of place where you can sit for hours (the walls are painted in muted colors; the booths are large enough for sleeping; the coffee keeps coming). The wait staff, while a bit standoffish at first, are uncommonly kind and generous people. The food is tasty and impeccably prepared. Especially the beet salad. Ive eaten it a hundred times (okay, maybe 10). For a salad, its hearty and satisfying. Its flavors mesh in a tangy, smoky fusion that spurs a gobble fest each and every time.
In figuring out how to make this mysterious, delectable concoction at home, I took some wild guesses as to ingredients, but the end result was pretty spot on.
1 nice head of lettuce (spring for leaf, rather than iceberg)
1/2-medium onion (sweet is best)
1 red bell pepper
1 cup shelled walnuts
6 beets (no larger than two inches in diameter)
1 small package of goat cheese
1/4-cup balsamic vinegar
1/2-cup olive oil
Lets start with the beets, which, by the way, are incredibly good for you (you hear that Mr. Healthy-man?). Theyre loaded with complex carbohydrates, vitamin C, and potassium. Purchase your beets as dirty and fresh as you can. They should look as though theyve just been pulled from the ground. Select small beets, all of approximately the same size so they cook at the same rate. The color should be deep and rich and the skin smooth and unbroken. Dont buy any bruised beets! If the greens are still intact, dont trim them too short. Nor should you snip away the straggly root. Wash the beets, but dont scrub or peel them. Dont break the skin! Place your beets in a pot and add enough cold water to cover them. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover the pot, and simmer until tender. A 1 1/2 inch beet will be done in about half an hour; larger beets can take up to an hour. Test doneness by plucking one out and giving it a quick (painful, hot, hot) squeeze. Drain the beets and run them under cold water for a minute or so. Trim the tops and bottoms and slip off the skins. Slice the beets and cut the slices in half, careful not to fling around too much stain juice. Then marinate them in a 2 to 1 mixture of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Add a dash of salt and pepper.
Slice about half of your medium onion, as thin as you can reasonably manage. Add the onion slices to the beets and jostle the concoction around so everything gets coated. Set aside to marinate for half an hour.
While the beets and onions are soaking, wash and dry your lettuce (if you have a salad spinner, youre in good shape). Tear the lettuce and place it in a large bowl. Coarsely chop the red pepper and toss that onto the lettuce. Now, coarsely chop your walnuts (basically, you want them in quarters). Layer them onto a baking sheet and toast them in a 375-degree oven (or toaster oven) until dark brown. This takes only a couple of minutes. Let the nuts cool and then toss them on top of the salad too.
Its time to make the dressing.
Never Fail Vinaigrette
3/4-cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3-cup red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon honey (or to taste)
Pinch of salt
Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
Place all ingredients in a small bowl. Hold a wire whisk upright in the bowl and rotate it between the palms of your hands until the vinaigrette is well blended. You can also use one of those hand-crank mixers, which work wonderfully.
Pour the dressing over your greens and toss together until everything is coated. Get out four dinner plates and place a nice amount of salad on each one. With a slotted spoon, capture your sliced beets and place 8 or so on each plate around the edge of your lettuce. Layer some of the marinated (and now pink) onions on top of the lettuce. Now, open the goat cheese and, with your fingers, pick little dabs off the log or block and set them on top of the onions. Serve with fresh French bread
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