Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Circle Salad

“You know, I can still remember when we found this salad,” Beth said, fork poised over our favorite early-autumn meal.

It was on a trip to New York. We wandered around in that city with its thousands of food options—so many you could starve to death trying to choose what to eat. That’s what was happening to us as we stumbled through neighborhoods, just a doubt away from being lost. And creeping up on us was the indecisive fog that comes with having postponed lunch too long.

Pausing smack in the middle of the sidewalk, blinking owlishly, we presented maximum obstruction to the annoyed pedestrians elbowing past us. I looked up and saw a storefront name I knew from a previous visit: Le Pain Quotidien. “Daily Bread.” I grabbed Beth’s arm and pulled her into the familiar restaurant.

The salad they brought us—well, we fell in love with it instantly. A pesto-lime dressing clung to fresh mixed greens piled in a circle of colorful roasted vegetable slices and medallions of chevre. It was a perfect balance of sweet and tangy, soft and crunchy, bright tastes and deep ones. Quite simply, it’s beets, squash, cheese, and greens holding hands and singing.

“We should remember this salad,” I told Beth. “We could make it at home.” And we do, every autumn, when beets and squash come to market and before summer’s basil and lettuces fade away. Whenever I announce that I’m making “the circles,” I’m always greeted with appreciation and approval.

There’s only one problem with circle salad, and it played itself out at the end of the meal tonight. Beth sat scowling at the scrap of lettuce and single bite each of cheese, beet, and squash on her plate. “I can’t decide what I want to taste last.”

Guess I’ll just have to make it again soon.

Circle Salad
I don’t remember what Le Pain Quotidien called this salad. Probably something more French and less prosaic.

1 butternut squash – it should have a 3-4”, narrow neck if possible.
4 golf ball sized beets
Olive oil for brushing on vegetables
4 oz chevre
4-5 c mixed baby field greens

The dressing:
1 c loosely packed fresh basil leaves
2-3 T pine nuts
¼ c grated Parmesan cheese
1 clove garlic
¼ t fresh ground black pepper
¼ - ½ c olive oil
Juice of one lime
Salt to taste

Heat the oven to 400°. Peel the squash and cut the neck into 12 slices, each about ¼” thick. Brush with olive oil and lay them on a cookie sheet. Brush the beets with oil and wrap them individually in aluminum foil. You can put them on a cookie sheet, too, or set them directly on the oven rack. Roast the beets and squash for 25-35 minutes or until they are easily pierced with a fork. Remove from oven and cool.

Slip the skins off the beets, trim off their tops and tails, and cut each beet into three crosswise slices.

Divide the room-temperature chevre into 12 equal pieces. Roll each portion into a ball and flatten into a disk. Refrigerate the disks to firm them up.

Run all the dressing ingredients in a blender or food processor until they are a pourable paste, thinner than pesto but still rough-textured. Add extra oil if necessary to keep things flowing smoothly.

Get out four plates. On each plate, arrange three pieces of chevre as if you are marking off the corners of an equilateral triangle. Follow with three slices of squash, each placed to the left of a chevre circle. Finish with three slices of beet. Do them in this order to decrease the chance of beet juice mishaps.

Reserve two or three teaspoons of the dressing. Toss the greens with the remaining dressing and pile them in the center of each plate. Drizzle a bit of the reserved dressing over each slice of chevre.

Bon app├ętit!