Thursday, May 17, 2012

Rhubarb, Beet and Blue Cheese Salad

My friend Derek has this theory that loyalty is not really the mark of desirable character that many make it out to be. More often than not, the word is used to justify and glorify behavior that ranges from ill-advised to just plain unethical. Giving people unfair advantages over others, covering up serious misdeeds, and hanging onto relationships much longer than you really should. I pretty much agree. And it's something I've been thinking about when it comes to rhubarb.

In years past, I was somewhat obsessed with rhubarb, and all that it represented for the turn of the season. I simmered rhubarb into syrup, and baked it up into custard tarts. But for some reason, I'm just not feeling it this year. I did make up a batch of rhubarb liqueur (as I can't imagine ever losing a taste for that), but other preparations? Not so much. It all just seems both too sweet and too sour somehow. Last week I made up a batch of rhubarb compote, just because I loyally felt like I should, and ended up composting most of it. Rhubarb, what happened to our love?

I was thinking of throwing in the towel on rhubarb altogether, and just give it another go next year. But there's also, as we readily acknowledge, a good side of loyalty — giving the benefit of the doubt, not losing sight of the deep good within just because of temporary lousiness, and allowing yourself at least one chance to be surprised before you write everything off. Perhaps rhubarb had a savory side that I could learn to explore before the season passed? And so I found this salad.

This amazing dish comes from the amazing Yotam Otollenghi. If you haven't had the pleasure, I highly recommend checking out his recipes. He has a knack for showcasing vegetables in surprising ways, putting together recipes that use just a few simple ingredients in totally inspired combinations. Like this salad of beets, rhubarb and blue cheese.

In this preparation, rhubarb's sourness isn't hidden under a mound of sugar, but instead perfectly balanced by other elements. Dense, sweet ruby-red beets are a perfect match for the soft, sour ruby-red rhubarb. Add some rich and salty-savory blue cheese and maple-sweet and pomegranate-punchy dressing, and it's just about perfect. I initially intended to have this as a first course, but instead paired it with a loaf of crusty bread and called it dinner. To be clear, I'm still not a fan of hanging onto things that aren't giving you any joy. But isn't it nice on those rare times you can dig a little deeper and give yourself the chance to be surprised?

And for those of you who are still fans of the sweet side of things, I wrote a little piece about Saint Honoré, the patron saint of bakers and the namesake of a ridiculously delicious cake. You can read about it over on NPR's food blog, The Salt.

Rhubarb, Beet and Blue Cheese Salad

adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi
serves ~4

1 bunch beets (~3 large), peeled and cut into wedges
1/4 lb rhubarb (~5 narrow stalks), cut into 1-inch lengths on a diagonal
1 Tbsp sugar
2 tsp sherry vinegar (or another relatively mild vinegar)
2 tsp pomegranate molasses
2 Tbsp olive oil (plus additional for roasting the beets)
1 Tbsp maple syrup
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/4 red onion, thinly sliced into half-moons (or quarter-moons)
1 large handful parsley or celery leaves, plucked from the stems
1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Farenheit.

Place the beets in a large saucepan, cover with water by a few inches, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat until it's just high enough to maintain a simmer, and cook until the beets are just tender enough to be pierced by a fork ~10 minutes. Drain.

Take the par-cooked beets, and place them on a baking sheet and drizzle with a bit of olive oil, stirring to coat. Roast, turning once, until they are beginning to caramelize, ~7-10 minutes per side. If you want, you can also roast the beets whole, wrapped in foil (Ottolenghi's recommendation), then slip them from their skins and cube. Alternately, you can simmer until totally done and skip the roasting altogether (I choose a hybrid method, to avoid having the oven on for an hour but to still take advantage of its caramelizing effects). Set the cooked beets aside in a salad bowl and let cool slightly. Turn the oven down to 400.

While the beets are cooling, place the rhubarb on the baking sheet, and sprinkle with the sugar. Bake until soft but not mushy, ~10-12 minutes, turning (gently) once.

While the rhubarb is roasting, make the dressing.  Whisk together the vinegar, pomegranate molasses, olive oil, maple syrup and allspice in a medium-sized bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the onion, and let sit for a few minutes to mellow and soften. Pour everything over the roasted beets, along with  parsley or celery leaves, and toss to combine. Top with the cooked rhubarb and any of the juices it's given up (it'll be delicate, so don't mush), and scatter the blue cheese. Serve, alone or with crusty bread.


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