Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Pickled Beet Salad

  Beets are probably my favorite vegetable. They have a delicious earthy flavour and are really versatile. They are easy to grow at home and local varieties are plentiful at any grocery store or vegetable market. It's fun to make your own pickled beets and pickling is a great way to preserve any surplus from a home vegetable garden.

      This salad is a slight twist on a classic recipe. A lot of Montreal restaurants have a beet & goat cheese salad on their menu. I've certainly made my fair share. What makes this one different is that instead of roasting the beets, as most restaurants do, I pickle them. Also, instead of just roasting the walnuts, I candy them because I find the little bit of extra sweetness goes well with the tangy pickled beets. I then add some peppery arugula for a welcome bitter edge. This salad packs a flavour punch, and so a small serving portion is all you need.

    Often chefs choose fresh goat cheese to make this salad, but to balance out the strength of the pickled beets, I like to use a semi-ripened goat cheese (specifically Paillot de Chevre from Fromagerie Alexis  de Portneuf.) This cheese has a really nice texture when melted, so I hit it with a blowtorch before serving. I realize that a blowtorch is not exactly a common tool in ever home kitchen, but they do come in handy. If you ever want to make creme-brulée at home you will definitely want to buy one. You can also use a torch to melt brie cheese over a steak, or you can even torch the steak directly to get an extra crispy sear.

    Propane torches can be picked up inexpensively at any hardware store, or you can splurge on a butane creme-brulée torch at a kitchen supply store. A butane torch is a good choice because they are smaller and easy to use. If you don't have a torch at home, you can melt the cheese under a broiler on a piece of parchment paper and then use a spatula to transfer the cheese to the salad. Just make sure you don't melt the cheese too much or you will have a hard time lifting if off the paper!

     To pickle the beets you will need some pickling spice. You can find pre-mixed pickling spice at most grocery stores. Sometime I like to make my own mix, but the advantage of the store-bought mixes is that they will have all sorts of spices in them that you might not already have in your pantry, such as dill seed and fennel seed. The important spices that you will want to use are mustard seed, coriander seed, black pepper, bay leaf and clove. Generally you will want your mix to have lots of mustard and coriander, but few cloves, because they are so strong. In this recipe, I don't add any salt until after the beets are cooked so that I can take a bit of the unsalted cooking liquid and reduce it down to a syrup to garnish the salad.

       This recipe takes a good amount of time to cook and then let all the ingredients cool down before serving. The good thing is that all the cooking can be done well ahead of time. If you are planing on making this salad for guests, I recommend you make the pickled beets and candied walnuts a day ahead. You can even double or triple the recipe if you want because both the beets and the candied nuts have a long self-life. Once those are made, the salad takes just minutes to throw together. You could always just go and buy pickled beets and candied walnuts and skip the majority of the steps of this recipe (go straight to step 4). Sure, you wont get the satisfaction of making everything from scratch, but at least you'll have a damn tasty salad.

Prep time: 20 minutes. Cooking time: 45 minutes + 30 minutes to cool.  Serves 6


Pickled beets:
5 cups fresh red beets, peeled and sliced.
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tbs pickling spice
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup red wine vinegar
3 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt

Candied walnuts:
100g walnuts
1 tbs vegetable oil
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup water

beet syrup:
2 cups cooking liquid
1/2 cup sugar

3 cups arugula
200g semi-ripened goat cheese (Paillot de chevre)

Pre-heat the oven to 350F

1. Place the pickling spice and crushed garlic in a cheese cloth or coffee filter and tie it closed with string. Place the beets & onions in a large pot and cover with 3 cups water and 1 cup red wine vinegar. Add the sugar and sealed spices. Add a bit more water if necessary to ensure that the beets are covered. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a gentle simmer. Cook until the beets are tender but still have a slight crunch, about 45 minutes. Pour off 2 cups of the cooking liquid to make beet syrup. Season beets with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Let beets cool to room temperate.

2. To make the beet syrup, add 1/2 cup sugar to the reserved cooking liquid and simmer on medium heat. Reduce the syrup until it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.

3. Place the walnuts on a baking tray and drizzle with oil. Roast in the oven at 350F for 7 minutes. Combine 1/2 cup brown sugar with 1/4 cup water in a small pot and bring to a boil. Allow to simmer while gentle shaking the pot, without stirring, until it reaches 130C (265F) on a candy thermometer.  Place the nuts in a metal mixing bowl and pour over the caramel, stirring constantly. Spread the candied nuts on a baking tray and leave to cool.

4. Once the beets, syrup & nuts have cooled to room temperature, you are ready to assemble the salad. Strain the beets and toss in a mixing bowl with the arugula.  Drizzle some beet syrup around the plate. Place a small mound of salad on each plate (a ring-mold will help keep things neat & tidy.) Place a few slices of goat cheese on each salad and then melt it with a blowtorch. Garnish with candied walnuts.