Best Beet Salad

In our family you get to say what you want for your birthday dinner. The process starts about a week before the birthday with me saying, “So, what do you want for your birthday dinner?” A few days later, when I ask again, I get an answer and proceed. This year, along with herbed salmon (a recipe I got twenty years ago and have made countless times since) and mushroom risotto (which I have never made because I am not fond of mushrooms), he asked for beet salad.

My mom made beet salad when I was a kid. In retrospect I see it was one of those salads you can make without having anything fresh in the fridge. If you want, you can open a can of whole beets, drain and grate them, add the dressing (oil, vinegar, salt, pepper and dried oregano, see below) and serve. But if you want it best, use fresh beets and fresh oregano.

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The ones I got were about as big as baseballs. I have not found a difference in flavor – big beets vs. small beets – so get what looks fresh. Look at the greens. If the greens look fresh, as in not wilting, the beets (which look the same regardless) are fresh. I cut the greens off (for chickens in my case, though some people would cook them separately) and put them in a pot.

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Notice how clear the water is. This does not last long. As soon as they start cooking, the water will get pink/red. Turn on the flame, bring to a boil, then turn down and let simmer. Cook the beets until you can put a knife into them easily, which could be 20 minutes and could be 40, depending on the size of the beets. Mine took 40. I was doing other things so just turned the flame off when they were done and walked away. An hour or so later, Samuel said Hey, look at the rings in the water.

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If anyone knows what that is, I’d be curious. I don’t think it’s bad. We all ate the salad yesterday and live to tell about it.

When you are ready, drain the beets and fill your pot again with cold water. If you have let some time go by, all the better because you handle these with your hands and if they are cooler, you will have an easier time of it. (If you are pressed for time and the beets are hot, you can do the job of getting the skins off while holding the beet under cold running water.)

Your thumbs are the best tool in the kitchen for this job. You can use a knife, but you will forfeit part of the beet. With your thumbs, exert pressure and push, slightly to the side. The skin should pop off. If you dunk the beet in the water now and then to give the sloughed-off skin a place to go (it likes to swim in the red water of the pot), you can see your progress more easily. You will need a knife for stubborn parts and for the end that the greens had been attached to. Beets are generally loath to give up all their skin without some resistance, a good reminder to us all, right? Don’t be a total pushover.

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Now notice that my hand is clean in the photo above. Duh, you say, of course you would work with clean hands. Yes, I work with clean hands. But this was the first beet. Remember how the water in the pot became red? So will your hands become red, which is actually kind of cool if it doesn’t gross you out.

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Which is to say – and this is a warning – do not wear that new white shirt you have, nor anything you might be sorry you splashed beet juice on. Wearing an apron when working with beets is a good idea. You could stain wood with beet juice.

Now don’t worry. Your hands will wash clean soon afterwards. The white shirt I can’t promise anything about.

When all the beets are skinless, rinse your hands and get out your grater. Here’s mine that I love (and my mother hates for reasons I will never understand). It’s a perfectly fine grater and whatever you grate ends up in the container below.

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Next, if you are fortunate to have fresh oregano in your garden…

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… go get eight to ten stems, take the leaves off and chop it up fine. That’s what I needed for the about 8 cups of beets I had for my salad. Remember it was Samuel’s birthday, meaning there would be extra people for dinner, and beet salad keeps very well in the fridge (wide-mouth mason jars are perfect for storage), so I like making a big bowlful. I had a full quart leftover.

Add the chopped up, fresh oregano to your grated beets as well as a small onion, chopped fine. It doesn’t matter if you use red onion or white onion. You will not be able to find the onion in the salad once the beet juice stains it red anyway. If you are partial to the flavor of onion, you can add more onion. No one will get in your way. In the rare, practically unthinkable instance that you don’t have any onion in the house, carry on without it. The oregano is what makes the difference in this dressing. If you don’t have fresh oregano, use dried. I would use one full teaspoon per four cups of grated beets.

The rest is simple: olive oil (extra virgin is best), apple cider vinegar, salt and pepper.

The basic proportion of oil to vinegar in this salad is almost 1:1 but not quite. Use somewhat more oil than vinegar. Per four cups of grated beets, use 1/3 cup oil and ¼ cup vinegar. Salt and pepper to taste. It’s yummy at room temperature or chilled. It’s yummy as a side dish or a snack. It’s yummy!

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