Our spring/summer CSA subscription just started, and Hands of the Earth Farm grew some beautiful beets. The bunch we received included red, gold, and some pale, pinkish white ones. I wanted to use these in some interesting way, and I knew right where to look. I read A16: Food + Wine recently, and I remembered seeing this salad in the Anitpasti chapter. This book tells the story of the San Francisco restaurant of the same name and the southern Italian food and wine that inspired the menu and wine list. The first section in the book covers wine by region. This area of Italy is not as well-known for its wine as the northern regions, and less wine is exported from the south. I learned a lot about some unfamiliar varietals and some interesting wines to look for in stores and restaurants. In the food section of the book, there is a wine suggestion for each dish, and for this salad that was Asprinio di Aversa from Campania. Asprinio means “slightly sour,” and this wine is described as lean and crisp with a sour edge. Unfortunately, it’s not an easy one to locate. Another wine from Campania is Greco di Tufo which is also a lean white with some acidity, and this I was able to find.
The fresh, pretty beets were roasted until tender, allowed to cool, peeled, and chopped into wedges. Fennel was sliced, quickly blanched, rinsed, and drained. A thick vinaigrette was to be made from black olives. I used black Cerignolas which have a nice, buttery, olive flavor but are a little difficult to pit. The pitted olives were pulsed in a food processor with olive oil and red wine vinegar, and this was tossed with the prepared beets. The drained, sliced fennel was tossed with lemon juice, olive oil, and salt. The salad was plated by piling some fennel in the center and surrounding it with beets, and an aged sheep’s pecorino, oro antico, was shaved on top of it all. I didn’t even realize until I had plated the salads that there is no pepper in this dish. I had to stop and think about whether I had grabbed the peppermill at some point out of habit, and no, I did not, I actually followed the instructions correctly. Throughout the food portion of the book, Appleman mentions the simplicity of flavors found in southern Italian food. He mentions that traditionally when onion is used, garlic is not, and when chiles are used, black pepper isn't. He doesn’t always use black pepper whether chiles are present or not. In general, ingredients are left in simple combinations to prevent one flavor from sullying or masking another.
Here, the focus of the salad was the sweetness of the vegetables accented by the briny olives and salty cheese. A small amount of salt was used in dressing the fennel, but pepper was not used at any point. Each item on the plate fulfilled exactly what it should have. The fennel was perfect with lemon, and the olives met well with the earthy sweetness of the beets. The sharp yet rich bite of the cheese brought all the flavors together, and the crisp, light, Greco di Tufo with a hint of grapefruit was just what was meant to go with it since I don’t know what I was missing with the Asprinio di Aversa.