This is a beet salad. This is not a salad which, incidentally, contains some beets. If you do not like beets, you are not going to like this salad. I say this because I find that people are rarely luke-warm on the issue of beets. One either loves them or hates them. I fall into the love camp. The beets are roasted and peeled and sliced into big meaty slabs. You can make about 3 salads for each beet that you purchase. Incidentally, that makes this one of the least expensive salads for eight people that you can put together. And I think they look quite nice, if I do say so myself.
The pickled onions sit atop the roasted beets and give the beets the “pickled” flavor, without overwhelming the earthy tone of the beets. I like pickled beets, but they can be like candy…which again, I like. But, I wanted this salad to not be about candied beets. The pickled onions are a wonder all alone. If you never imagined yourself the sort to pick up rings of red onions and pop them into your mouth one by one, prepare yourself to do so. I love these onions. Retain the brine that they are cooked in. When the salad is plated, the brine is combined with an equal part of oil to create a little dressing. As you pop a few of these into your mouth, you will think of a number of other ways to use them, on burgers, on chopped beef sandwiches, or alone. They are very tasty. You will have plenty left over to experiment. Just don’t throw out the cooking liquid. You need it for the dressing.
Be warned, red beets make the world red. They will make your cutting boards, clothes, dish towels and hands red as can be. You can absolutely ruin a nice wood cutting board with beets, so get out your little plastic cutting sheets for this task. I tried a method here where the beets are roasted with the skin on, and then the skin is rubbed off using a paper towel once they have cooled. This works nicely with the help of the dull side of a knife. But I found it just as messy as peeling beforehand. Once the whole beets are roasted, though, they slice like a charm. When you assemble the salad, remember what I say here about red juice getting everywhere. I put the onions on top of the beets, and then the cheese on top of the onions, because if you put the cheese on top of the beets, it turns bright red and looks messy. Place the beets on the greens and then go wash your hands before continuing to assemble the salad. The salad is a mess from the word go, once your guest cuts into it. The cheese crumbles into the red juices. It is the nature of the beast, I’m afraid. But, is it ever good. You might like more greens with yours. I used it as mere window dressing.
As for the cheese. I used plain crumbled feta and pressed it into a small round cutter to mold it into disks. I like the look of it. Is this nutty? Perhaps. But, I wanted round feta cheese disks and this is the only way I could come up with it. The store had no blocks of regular feta, only fat free. But you could by a block, cut it into slices and then cut out rounds. Then again, you may not be as interested in round, perfectly stacked salads as I am this week. You might, very reasonably, choose to place a little pile of crumbled feta onto a bird’s nest of pickled onions.
3 large red beets
Pickled Red Onions:
1 large red onion, sliced thinly into rings
1 cup apple cider vinegar (you may substitute white vinegar)
1 japone pepper, crushed (you may substitute a pinch of crushed red pepper)
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 bay leaf
1 pinch ground cloves
10 to 12 tablespoons crumbled feta cheese
Retained brine from the pickled onions
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Thoroughly rinse the beets. Chop off the top and bottom of the beets and place them in a baking dish that is lined with foil. Rub each beet with a tablespoon of canola oil. Place them in the oven and roast the beets for one hour. Check for doneness by piercing the beet at the top with a sharp knife. The beet should be tender, but not mushy. Remove the beets from the oven and allow them to cool. When you can handle them safely, use a paper towel to rub off the skins. It should come off easily. Scrape any tough parts with the back side of a knife. Place the beets in the refrigerator until you are ready to assemble the salads.
2. In a small non-reactive saucepan, bring the vinegar, crushed pepper, brown sugar, salt, bay leaf and cloves to a boil. Add the onion slices and turn them in the boiling liquid until they are all covered. Cook for approximately one minute and remove from the heat. Allow the onions to cool in the pan. You may transfer the onions to a jar or bowl. Retain the excess brine for the dressing.
3. Rub the inside of a 1½” cookie/biscuit cutter with a little canola oil. Lay the cutter down on top of parchment paper and spoon a heaping tablespoon of crumbled feta cheese into the cutter. Press the cheese down firmly with the back side of a spoon to pack it into the cutter. The goal is to form a cohesive disk, so be firm. Using your fingers, carefully push the disk out of the cutter. Wipe the cutter and oil it again. Proceed until you have made 8 disks (or 9 so that you have a spare in case one crumbles).
4. In a small bowl whisk ¼ cup of the retained brine with a ¼ cup of olive oil.
5. To assemble each salad, place salad greens decoratively on a small plate. Place a beet slice on the greens. Wash your hands of the beet juice. Drizzle a small spoonful of the dressing on top of the beet. Stack 4 to 5 onion rings on top of the beet. Carefully place a disk of feta cheese onto the onions. Place one more onion, decoratively, on top of the cheese. Top with a small flake of japone pepper skin, if you like. Serve immediately.
Many thanks to David Lebovitz for the inspiration on the pickled onions. His is a charming blog about his life in Paris. If you need a 5 minute vacation in the heart of Paris, watch this video that he created about his neighborhood market.