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!

A voice of reason and … crackers!

Hankerings come in handy. Yesterday in the afternoon a colleague called me. “I have a personal favor to ask. I need about an hour of your time. Things with my daughter right now are…let’s just say…I need a voice of reason.” I said How about dinner? We settled on tonight.

Last week we had had a conversation about who pays for dinner when friends go out. We had agreed that the person who holds the ball and runs with it is the one who asks or suggests in the first place. I realized I did just blurt out How about dinner? A case could be made otherwise, but I owned this one.

The simplest, most straightforward thing to do would be to just go out. Most people would just go out. It would be good sometimes to be like most people. I might have been able to in this case if I had not had a hankering for crackers.

Crackers had been a lifesaver for me during a particularly demanding stretch of months some years ago when I was writing my book on my old laptop, comfy on the couch next to a good fire, poring over sentence and paragraph construction and dealing with the too-hot computer resting on my lap which was burning the tops of my thighs more and more as the fan in it became less and less effective over time. I remember the red marks. I graduated to using a pillow between my lap and the steady warmth. It was a happy day when I got a new laptop. Thank you, Mom and Dad!

But not just any crackers. Back in the day I had been one of the lucky ones who got a first edition of King Arthur Flour’s 200th anniversary recipe collection in a smart three-ring binder. And one lucky day Ken Haedrich’s recipe for Cheddar Cornmeal Crackers on page VI-43 had caught my eye. Samuel had fatefully experimented with that recipe one day, found a clear winner (you never had store-bought crackers like these), and obliged himself henceforth to provide them as sustenance when I was too occupied with transcribing interviews or piecing together disparate pieces of text to have time to cook dinner. To be fair, he did enjoy cooking and did volunteer for this service. I will remember his willingness and skill fondly, always. The crackers hit the spot on numerous occasions before the book was done. I especially liked the darker ones — still do. When you make them yourself you can take them out of the oven at exactly your choice of the right golden color. Or you can tell the very kind and loving son who is making said crackers for you the exactly goldenness you are longing for, and he will take them out at the right time. Bless him forever.

For a long time after the book was done and after Samuel left home, I did not make these crackers. Fond as my memories of them were, it was as if they were his crackers, not mine, and I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I elevated them in my mind to a place where they downright intimidated me. My crackers couldn’t possibly be as good as his. One Christmas I hinted that he might fill a tin of them for me, and oh joy! He came through! But those didn’t last overly long, naturally, being as good as they are, and I finally realized that if I wanted these, I would have to make them myself. And did, now and then, over the last year or so.

So, dinner with a friend combined with a hankering for crackers. The grocery store is not far away, but I like working with what I have on hand. The recipe calls for cheddar cheese, but suggests you can also use swiss, monterey jack or parmesan. How handy that I had just — the very night before — grated (with the very fine grater) a hunk of parmesan enough to nearly fill a quart mason jar. The image of this jar in my fridge triggered my Brain of Debatable Reason to say Well, I’m halfway there already, so why not make crackers?Serve them with some good cheese, a few nice salads, a bottle of wine and a bit of chocolate for afterwards, and voila — dinner!

Anyway, I had had a rough day and there is nothing like getting busy in the kitchen as a means to decompress. I started with the cucumber salad because they were still warm from having sat still attached to their vines in the hot sun all day. Cucumbers don’t get fresher than this, I assure you. I grated them with the not-so-fine grater, layered it with salt and put the bowl in the fridge to cool.

On to the cracker dough. Having already grated the parmesan saved me all of five minutes in this process, but hey, we count our blessings. All I had to do was dump the contents of that jar into the bowl with all the other ingredients and carry on. Thankfully there was a bag of whole wheat flour in the freezer, which is of course where you keep it when you use it infrequently. I tripled the recipe and therefore did not have enough corn meal, but just put that much extra regular flour in instead. It worked out fine. Here is the recipe. I forgot the pepper but it worked.

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If you decide to make these, remember olive oil is the best. And add enough water (which might be a little more than the recipe calls for) to make the dough just shy of sticky. It has to hold together when you roll it out, and there is a fine line between too much water and not enough water. I tried a new way to roll these out this time to save myself time. It was, after all, 7pm already when I started all this. I cut two pieces of waxed paper as big as my sheet pan, laid them flat on the counter, floured the center area, and rolled the dough right on the paper. Then I was able to slide the whole big flat piece of dough up and over the lip of the pan, trim the edges, brush with beaten egg, cut shapes with my little zigzag wheel, salt them and pop it right into the oven.

This is my cutter. My mother had marked it GRANDMA when she gave it to me because it belonged to my grandmother. You can see that the letters are wearing off, but that only makes it better.

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The recipe calls for a 375 oven, but as I said, I like them dark, so I bumped it to 400. Two of my three pans have the silicon liner,  which did not by the way affect the crackers or the clean-up in any perceivable way. Tripling the recipe gave me a lot of crackers. Having a lot of crackers is not a problem because 1. They keep. 2. They do not last long anyway. This is half of them:

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While the crackers were baking, I used the not-so-fine grater to shred the beets that Sandy had pulled from the garden the night before. They had been rinsed, boiled in water until soft (skins and all),  put in a bowl, covered with water and chilled until I decided what to do with them. It was handy that they were there waiting there in the fridge for such a time as this. I love sticking my hands in the water and easing the skins off. The beets are smooth as velvet underneath. Now shredded, they again sat and waited. Next thing was to squeeze the water from the grated cukes. It’s a good thing vegetables are patient.

I smiled as I thought about this upcoming dinner that would include cucumbers and beets from the garden made into yummy salads and crackers that brought fond memories. As I grated the veggies and squeezed the cukes and rolled out the stiff dough, I looked at my bare arms (it is summer after all), realized how much they were working, and thought This is how women burned calories in the old days. Who needs a gym when you have an agenda like this?  

Over the weekend, in my favorite grocery store in Charlottesville, Food of All Nations, I had bought two items that also evoked fond memories. Beemster is a hard cheese with little pockets of salt and sharp, delicious flavor. It used to be a staple on the cheese board during Villa Lunch at Keswick Hall. Quark is a German dairy product that makes the best cheesecake you ever had. It’s like a cross between yogurt and sour cream. This one comes from Vermont besides. Be still my heart.

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The word here is Providence. There is not a lot in my fridge, but there was Beemster and there was Quark. Slices of Beemster would be handy to go with the crackers along with Jarlsberg and Manchego. Quark would work in the dressing for the cucumber salad. Quark plus lemon juice and a bit of salt, pepper and sugar. The beet salad I dressed with olive oil, cider vinegar, salt, pepper and oregano which, shame on me, I did not go get fresh from the garden (it was dark by then, really).

Into an old tin went the crackers. Into a basket went said tin, two plates, two forks, two knives (for pushers), two wine glasses wrapped in white cloth napkins, a wine key, a bottle of pinot noir (always keep a bottle of red on hand), and a small cloth for the tabletop.Into the fridge went a small container of cut up cheese, a mason jar of cucumber salad and a mason jar of beet salad.

I am ready for dinner. There is a park in town that has a pavilion with picnic tables. It will be quiet there and hopefully a good atmosphere for good conversation.  I hope I can be a voice of reason for my friend. One could argue that I did not demonstrate much reason in the preparation of this dinner. It would have been easier to go out. But I had a hankering.