(NYTIMES) - Although he grew up in Wisconsin farm country, chef Joshua McFadden says he never saw a fresh beet, in the ground or in the kitchen, until he began cooking professionally.
"Canned and pickled is all I knew," he said. "And I didn't like them either way."
Now, at his restaurants Ava Gene's and Tusk in Portland, Oregon, he is the kind of chef who cooks beets in all ways and in all seasons, from the tip of the root to the tall green-and-magenta tops.
McFadden has a simple rule for seasoning: Everything should taste like a potato chip. This does not necessarily mean earthy, crunchy and salty. It means that you want to take another bite, and another, because of what he calls the "tension" between salty and sweet, acidity and richness, and on and on.
"That's how you make ordinary vegetables taste extraordinary," he said.
This salad illustrates his point perfectly, vibrating with tension between salt and vinegar, softness and crunch, sweetness and tang.
Beet and goat cheese salad may seem like a cliche, but when it is done right, it makes a convincing argument that it should be considered a classic.
Beets are often described as "earthy," a more lyrical way of saying that they taste like dirt. Earthy is a good flavour note, but it should not push ahead of all the others. The compound that produces the taste, geosmin, also flavours new potatoes, carrots and mushrooms, and it is present in the fresh smell of rain falling on earth, which has its own name: petrichor.
Vinegar and other acids break down geosmin, which is why vinaigrettes and beets are such a good marriage. Opening up that marriage to include cheese is almost always a good idea, especially the big-flavoured ones like blue, feta and goat that make this classic recipe complex and satisfying.
And yet, although beets, vinaigrette and cheese often inhabit the same bowl, they do not always achieve a lasting union. I have made many a beet and goat cheese salad at home that turned out badly: The beets, however nicely roasted, were bland and earthy; the cheese crumbly and dry.
I have also eaten countless versions in restaurants over the years, but the one that haunts my memory is from Locanda Verde in TriBeCa. So I called the chef, Andrew Carmellini, to ask why. As the inventor of a corned beet sandwich - that is not a typo - and an inveterate maker of beet tartares and risottos, he qualifies as New York City's beet maven.
"Beets are like sponges," he said immediately. "They soak up anything you throw at them." That, he said, is the key to a good beet salad: Dress the beets warm, so the flavours are absorbed, and then dress them again when you serve them, to bring the beet-dressing combination to its peak. The same rule applies to other root vegetables, like carrots and potatoes.
Similarly, to bring out the best in the cheese, he whips it with a little oil, salt, pepper and milk until loose and fluffy.
"It still tastes like itself, but with a texture and flavour that brings the dish together," he said, reminiscing about the versions he's made over the decades. "I can't remember a time when I wasn't making beet and goat cheese salad."
The combination turned up around the Bay Area in the early 1980s, and whizzed down the West Coast to Los Angeles, where Wolfgang Puck moulded a camera-ready Hollywood version. He credits the arrival of multicoloured and baby beets for turning the heads of the well-heeled crowd at Spago, who had probably never before seen a humble beet on a restaurant menu. His beet and goat cheese napoleons put Puck on the map, helped define modern California cuisine, and prompted a thousand copycats.
Nearly 40 years later, beet and cheese salads are ubiquitous on American menus, and still generating new variations. They are among the most popular salads at the trendproof Cheesecake Factory chain, and one of the best at the trendsetting De Maria in NoLIta, where beets are teamed with yogurt, cucumbers, raspberries and pistachios.
Many cooks think of beets as seasonless, ever-present near the onions and carrots at the supermarket. But McFadden knows his vegetables, having worked on a farm in Maine for almost two years after passing through ambitious New York kitchens like Blue Hill and Momofuku Ssam Bar.
In his new book, Six Seasons: A New Way With Vegetables" he wrote that beets have two distinct seasons, which dictate how they are treated in the kitchen. Thinking in terms of six seasons instead of four better reflects how vegetables grow in temperate climates, he said. Summer is divided into early, mid and late.
The small beets you see at farmers' markets, early to midsummer, are harvested young. They have tall, appetising leafy tops and, like baby carrots, they are thin-skinned, juicy and tender enough to eat raw. The hulking, tougher specimens harvested in the fall are around all year. They are the same beets but grown to full maturity and cold-stored for months after the harvest.
Steamed early beets are wonderful in this recipe; roasted fall beets make it seasonless. Any colour can be used for this recipe, but a combination - beets come in orange, yellow, white, purple and striped - produces the most tension. And that is a good thing.
Keep in mind that magenta beets will dye the others to match as soon as they are combined. The best solution is to use just a couple of colours, and marinate them separately until time to serve.
Marinated Beet Salad With Whipped Goat Cheese
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Total time: 1 hour, plus cooling and marinating
For the beets:
8 to 10 medium-large beets
2 Tbs minced shallots
3 Tbs olive oil, plus more to taste
2 Tbs rich, sweet vinegar like Barolo, balsamic or sherry
Salt and ground black pepper
1/4 cup shelled nuts, like pistachios, walnuts or pecans (optional)
1 cup loosely packed whole herb leaves (like parsley, mint or cilantro) or 2 cups small salad greens (like baby spinach, baby arugula or mâche), or use a mixture or herbs and greens
For the goat cheese:
1/4 cup fresh goat cheese
1 Tbs olive oil
2 Tbs whole milk or heavy cream
1/2 tsp rice or white wine vinegar, plus more to taste
1/2 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt, more to taste
1. Prepare the beets: Place a rack in the center of the oven and heat to 204 degrees Celsius. Place a sheet pan underneath to catch any drips from the beets.
2. Trim the greens, tops and stems from the beets. Wash thoroughly and wrap in aluminum foil packages, about 4 beets per package. Place the packages directly on the oven rack and bake until beets are easily pierced by a fork or knife, 45 minutes to 1 hour depending on size. No need to unwrap the beets to test them.
3. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine shallots, oil, vinegar and a lavish sprinkling of salt and pepper. Set aside.
4. Remove beets from oven and carefully open packages to let the steam escape. Let cool at least 20 minutes, or up to 4 hours.
5. Unwrap beets and use a peeler or your fingers to remove any tough skin. Dice beets neatly into bite-size pieces. Add to bowl with shallot mixture, mix well and let marinate in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes or up to 8 hours. Stir occasionally.
6. Meanwhile, in a toaster oven or 176 degree Celsius oven, toast nuts until golden, about 5 minutes. If unsalted, sprinkle with salt. Let cool, then coarsely chop.
7. Prepare the goat cheese: In a bowl, mix or whisk all ingredients together until smooth. Keep whipping until cheese is fluffy and soft. Taste and season with additional vinegar and salt. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
8. To serve, pile beets on a serving platter or individual plates. Spoon remaining dressing over the top. Spoon dollops of goat cheese mixture on and around the beets, then tuck in herbs and/or greens. Sprinkle with nuts and serve immediately.