The idea for this flexible summer salad has a couple of inspirations. For one thing, the ingredients are primarily local to the Midwest and are available throughout late spring to early fall, more or less. For another thing, the preparation of the beets—the idea of cooking them intact with their greens attached—came from an episode of my favorite show, A Chef’s Life, starring Chef Vivian Howard. Chef Howard interviewed a local person, Matt from Crooked Fence Produce, who swore that beets would have a better flavor if they were boiled with their greens attached, rather than cutting the greens off and using them in another way—something both Chef Howard and I have always done. I conferred with several foodie friends who thought this might be a tasty way to keep even more nutrients in the beets, so away I went. And my Midwestern Antipasto gave me the perfect opportunity to try this rather unconventional use (or not use) of beet greens.
You will no doubt recognize this dish’s relationship to true antipasto: the preparation of vegetables; the garnish of fats—although I did not include meat, you certainly could–the quick-pickling sauce, the balance of sweet, savory, sour and bitter; and the convenience of making it ahead (In fact, making it ahead by about 24 hours will enhance the flavors nicely!). But while my version closely resembles its Italian cousin, the recipe below is considerably more local, using what’s on hand at the farmers market near you. Be sure to take note of all the possible variations so that you can go with the flow of the market and use every last piece of produce, avoiding waste.
- One and one-half cups quality raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar (I continue to recommend Bragg; it’s the best!)
- One-half cup filtered water
- Two or three ribbons of lemon peel (organic only, since pesticides remain in peelings)
- Two chunks, about one-inch each, fresh gingerroot
- One tablespoon whole coriander seeds
- One teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- One tablespoon whole mustard seed
- One small slice to one whole hot pepper (This choice depends on how much heat you want in your marinade—a little means a jalapeño without seeds; a lot means a slice of ghost pepper and if a random seed falls in, oh well—get it?)
- One heaping tablespoon raw honey
- Two teaspoons coarse sea salt
- Asparagus spears, thin is best, washed and trimmed
- Sugar snap peas, only the thin tender ones, washed and strung
- Heirloom carrots in a variety of colors, scrubbed and trimmed, sliced julienne
- Green onions, washed and trimmed with a fair amount of green remaining, sliced vertically or left whole
- Small zucchini, washed and trimmed, sliced julienne
- Bell pepper, any color but red is super yummy, washed, seeded and sliced julienne
- Kohlrabi, scrubbed and peeled, sliced super thin (Time to practice those mandolin skills!)
- Fennel, just the tender bulb, sliced thin (Use the fronds and tough outer layers for your next vegetable stock.)
- Thin green beans, especially French Fillet or Haricot Verts, blanched two minutes and shocked in an ice bath, drained
- Whole beets with greens attached, cooked in enough water to completely cover until fork tender, about 30-40 minutes, set aside to slightly cool before peeling, sliced thin.
- Broccoli flowerets, washed and trimmed, blanched one minute and shocked in an ice bath
- Cauliflower flowerets, washed and trimmed, blanched one to two minutes and shocked in an ice bath
- Sliced farm-fresh hard cooked eggs or your best deviled eggs
- Local cheeses (Our favorite for this dish is Marcoot Jersey Creamery’s Garlic Cheese Curds.)
- Favorite olives (We love Galata and Kalamata.)
- Prosciutto di Parma (If you are going for classic and are not vegetarian) or local cured ham (We shop Papa’s Pasture.)
- Put all the marinade ingredients in a heavy-duty, non-reactive sauce pan. Bring to a full boil; then, continue to simmer for about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and allow the marinade to calm down a bit. I choose to take out the hot pepper at this point, but, again, it depends on the amount of heat you are looking for. The longer the pepper remains, the hotter the marinade gets.
- While the beets are cooking, prepare all the raw and blanched vegetables. Note that the beets will absorb more flavor if they join the marinade lukewarm rather than completely cooled.
- Once the vegetables are prepared and the marinade is ready, put all the vegetables, except the beets, in a 13 x 9 casserole dish or other large, shallow dish so that you have everything in a single layer as much as possible. Put your peeled and sliced beets in a smaller version of the same style casserole dish—say 8 x 8. Keeping the beets separate allows all the vegetables to keep their spectacular colors intact. If you add the beets with everything else, your Midwest Antipasto will probably be pink.
- Divide the marinade: one-quarter on the beets to slightly cover and the rest over the remaining vegetables. Cover with tight lids and refrigerate at minimum 10 hours, at best 24. You will need to open the dishes periodically to toss and turn the veggies. Your hands work really well for this step.
- When you are ready to serve, drain off the marinade and arrange your array of colorful, homegrown vegetables on a pretty platter and garnish with your eggs, olives, meat, whatever.
Note that the prep time does not include the 24 hours that I strongly suggest you give these veggies to marinate. Obviously, the time it takes to prepare this dish and the number of servings it will yield depend totally on the ingredients you include and how much you have to work with. You can even double the amount of marinade and create an appetizer for 20! It is all up to you, so go with the flow!
So did it make a difference sacrificing those lovely beet greens? Well, I think so, and I tested this on other people, who all commented on the intense color and flavor of the beets, in particular. I do think the beets held their color better, were more flavorful, probably had more nutritional value and lost a touch of that overly earthy quality some people don’t like. For me, the greens now stay on when I’m preparing a dish such as this, but they will still find their leafy goodness in my salads and smoothies, too.
I truly love this dish because it meets all the Green Gal goals. You can keep this 100 percent local with only the veggies, cheeses, eggs and meats from your local farmers market. You will certainly be serving a healthy dish for friends and family. And, there’s so much room for brave creativity! Plus, even though there is plenty of work up front, it’s a wonderfully simple dish to serve at your next porch party or take on a picnic because it can all be made ahead. Perfetto!