There was a time, I remember, when I did not regard beetroot with the fanatical adoration I feel now. In fact, when I was little, I didn’t like beets at all. I hated beetroot’s sweet, iron-rich flavour and the cooked-fruit texture it acquires when roasted or boiled. I disliked the sweet-and-sour cooked grated beetroot, sour cream and horseradish salad that I was forced to politely eat at the homes of my mother’s Polish friends and relatives, and I despised hot borscht. I now love all of these things. In fact, I can only think of a single iteration of beetroot that I don’t adore, and that’s those flabby beetroot slices you find at salad bars, but those aren’t really beets at all, anymore than tinned corn is corn.
This is a beetroot-lover’s salad. Beets are not some shy accessory, but the main attraction. I would like to say that this salad had its genesis in some careful culinary process; i.e., as part of an exploration of flavors that would work with preserved kumquats. In fact, the first time I made this salad, I made it in a last-minute panic for a party because I was convinced there was not enough food for my guests, and I prepared it as I did after rifling through my fridge and cupboards to see what ingredients I could throw together. But, I liked it so well I now am blogging it. Also, I promised recipes using preserved kumquats, and it turns out that roasted beets work extremely well with the salty-tangy-citrusy piquancy of the kumquats.
To make this salad, first I roasted beets, then I marinated them in a mixture of pomegranate paste or molasses and the basil olive oil I was sent a year ago from the wonderful people at Seggiano. (I had not anticipated when I received this olive oil how much I would use it, but it has become one of my favourite speciality kitchen ingredients. If it’s not in your larder, however, you can make your own basil olive oil by infusing extra virgin olive oil with pulverized basil leaves, and then straining slowly through muslin, or, for this salad, you can substitute good-quality extra virgin olive oil and a handful of torn basil leaves.) The marinated beets are then tossed with crushed pistachios, chopped preserved kumquats, and black pepper, and served on a bed of peppery greens, like arugula (rocket) or watercress. Do you have to use preserved kumquats? Well, probably not – you could also make this with preserved salted lemons – but the kumquats are delicious, and it is always fun to surprise your guests with flavours they haven’t encountered before.
600 grams (about 1.5 lbs) beetroot (2-3 large, or 4-6 small beets)
1 tablespoon basil olive oil (or 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, and a handful of roughly torn basil leaves)
1 tablespoon pomegranate paste or pomegranate molasses
2 tablespoons fresh hulled unsalted pistachios, roughly chopped, plus one to two additional teaspoons chopped and reserved.
4-5 preserved kumquats, roughly chopped
A generous handful of strong salad leaves like rocket or watercress
Fresh coarsely-ground black pepper
Preheat your oven to 190 degrees Celsius (375 degrees Fahrenheit). Scrub the beets well, poke with a fork, wrap individually in aluminium foil, and roast for 1.5 – 2 hours, or until soft.
When the beets are cool enough to handle, slip them out of their skins (the skins should come off easily), and dice into ½ inch (1 centimeter) dice. Combine the cubed beets with the pomegranate paste, olive oil, and basil leaves (if using). Leave to marinate for at least 30 minutes. (Note: if preparing in advance, you can do this bit, then refrigerate the beets up to overnight and add the remaining ingredients before serving.)
When ready to serve, bring the beets to room temperature, make a bed in your serving dish of the strong greens, and toss the beets with the kumquats, pistachios, and a few firm grinds of black pepper, reserving one teaspoon of chopped pistachios. Serve the salad on the bed of greens, garnishing before serving with the reserved chopped pistachios.