It’d be unfair if I didn’t confess to you that as I try to write about beets and fennel and orange and walnuts, I’m watching Lydia Bastianich add home-cured mackerel to cannelini bean bruschetta and red onion salad, and all I can think about is how delicious that oily, vinegary cured fish must taste. Holy dear, I need to turn this off.
Where were we? Ah, yes. Beets.
By now you know it’s winter here, I certainly don’t need to tell you that. And surely you’re also aware that I’m having a bit of a fennel moment. But stay with me for a second. Fennel is crunchy and bright, the perfect antidote to February (not that I have anything against my birthday month, but holy bejeezus, it’s cold out there!). Fennel’s also a lovely addition to roasted beets, helping them feel less like a mid-winter consolation prize and more like an antidote to that cold weather. Ditto oranges, one of the few fruits that not only is readily available all winter long, but actually hits its peak right around this time. (Granted, they’re shipped in from Florida and elsewhere, but until you find me a job and an apartment squarely in California, I’m stuck with airplane citrus.) Put those flavors together on a plate, along with some toasted walnuts, and you’ve got yourself a nice looking winter salad.
Ok, so that won’t win a prize for originality. But what if you upped the flavor contribution of each component of the salad by including it in two (or even three) different forms? Yes, clearly I have a weakness for nerdily contemplating the what-ifs of recipe development. But when I tasted my walnut oil vinaigrette, I stopped making fun of myself and kinda jumped for joy. So nutty! So earthy! A perfect match for beets. Toasted fennel seed, orange zest, minced shallots, and champagne vinegar rounded out the dressing, which I used to marinate the fennel and beets in advance and to drizzle overtop at the end. I topped the salad with some toasted walnuts and fennel fronds, strengthening the fennel and walnut undercurrents of the dish. The result, to be frank, was delicious. I’m still marveling at how a classic flavor combination became so much more than the sum of its parts simply by combining the elements in new forms, toasting the seeds and zesting the oranges and really wringing several dimensions of flavor out of each ingredient. Dishes like this one remind me why I insist on spending a bulk of my free time clanging pots and pans together in this little kitchen of ours: it’s because I love to cook, and I love to eat, and most of all, I love that moment when everyone pops a bite of something innocent-looking in their mouths, and then grow wide-eyed as the flavors start opening up and the dish is revealed. It may not be an olympic sport, but cooking really can be riveting.
Beets with Fennel, Orange, and Walnuts
note: I recently submitted this recipe to the crowd-sourced recipe site, Food52. Have you checked it out? It’s a website founded by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs (of NYT fame), and the idea behind it is to create a cookbook composed entirely of crowd-sourced recipes. If you haven’t seen it, it’s really worth a look. There are some great recipes there, and every week, Amanda and Merrill offer up two contests for reader submissions (“your best beets” was what prompted me to submit this recipe). So check it out!
2 large beets
1 bulb fennel, stalks removed, fronds reserved
3 oranges, zested and supremed
3/4 cups freshly toasted walnut halves
2 teaspoons orange zest
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, dry toasted in a hot pan
1 shallot, minced
1/4 cup orange juice, squeezed from oranges after segments have been removed
1/4 cup champagne or white wine vinegar
1/2 cup walnut oil
flaky salt and freshly cracked pepper
Preheat oven to 375. Wrap beets completely in aluminum foil and set on baking sheet. Bake 45 minutes to an hour, until a knife can be easily inserted into beets. Remove from oven, unwrap foil, and allow beets to cool.
While beets cook, make dressing: combine orange zest, fennel seeds, shallot, orange juice, vinegar, and 3/4 teaspoon salt.. I like my dressing chunky, but if you prefer it smooth, puree these ingredients together. Slowly whisk in walnut oil.
When beets are cool enough to handle, cut off root end and tip, and use paper towel to slip skin off (should come off pretty easily once beets are fully cooked). Halve beets lengthwise, slice each half into 7 or 8 wedges, and transfer to bowl. Drizzle half the dressing over the beets and toss to incorporate using a large wooden spoon (metal may cut or break beet wedges). Transfer to refrigerator to chill.
Using a mandoline or a very sharp knife, slice fennel as thinly as possible. Transfer to a bowl drizzle with a few tablespoons of dressing, to taste. Do this as soon as possible to prevent fennel from oxidizing. Let marinate about 5 minutes.
When beets are sufficiently cool but not cold, plate salad: lay down a bed of fennel on each plate. Set beet wedges in spiral pattern overtop, and alternate orange wedges in between. Sprinkle toasted walnuts overtop. Finish with a little drizzle of remaining dressing, a sprinkle of flaky salt, and a grind of the pepper mill. Top with a few fronds of fennel. Serve immediately.