Summer is finally here and with it come the light, fresh flavors of the season. This salad was served during a seven course dinner and was paired with a chardonnay.
Beets are one of my favorite ingredients to work with and they are one of the most useful vegetables in existence. Beets (as they are commonly referred to, although they are the taproot of the beet plant) are used for the production of liquid food coloring, for coloring tomato paste, for table sugar, as well as improving the quality of road salt, among other uses. Beets are also loaded with vitamins and minerals which have been shown to lower blood pressure and to increase blood flow. In fact, one study showed that distance runners performed 5% better after consuming baked beets.
As a cook, I enjoy using beets for their mellow, sweet, earthy flavor which serves well as the basis for salads and contrasts nicely against tart vinaigrettes. It is a perfect flavor to use early in a multi-course meal while building flavors slowly towards a crescendo with the entree.
The beets for this dish were roasted and peeled, then sliced thinly and layered before being cut into rounds. On the plate, they were dressed with a few drops of the vinaigrette, along with a few flecks of coarse sea salt and a grind of fresh black pepper. The salad was comprised of baby greens from Lucky Leaf Garden and dandelions from Small City Farm. Goat cheese was blended in the Pacojet with candied ginger to add some richness and creaminess to cut the tartness of the vinaigrette, and salted almonds rounded out the flavors and added some needed texture to the dish.
The “natural” presentation of this dish is reflective of the current trend towards whole foods and simpler presentations. It seems our industry has, in the past couple years, made a radical shift from the complexity of “molecular gastronomy” towards simple, clean and more approachable cuisine. While the most valuable lessons learned from the years of trying to get foams to hold for hours during service will stay with us, I think that we have moved on and gained a greater appreciation for nature in it’s purest form. In the most frequented restaurants across America, “airs” and synthetic caviars have fallen away in favor of traditional charcuterie and descriptors which include season and names of local farms. Consumers have gained a new awareness and appreciation for what they are putting into their bodies and feeding their children. Our restaurant-going society is seemingly edging closer to the French’s philosophy of “Terroir”, an appreciation of the complete natural environment in which ingredients are produced. As a result, naturally appealing ingredients are being left whole and recognizable, as is the case with the flowers on this salad.
Using flowers as an ingredient is certainly not a new concept, but it has recently gained popularity. There was a dialogue recently with some chefs whose opinions I respect regarding the value and intent of utilizing edible flowers when plating. Although flowers are the current “agent provocateur” of the conversation, I think the discussion was, and has always been, about creating dishes to achieve a desired aesthetic rather than for practical value. My views on this have evolved over the years as I’ve (hopefully) grown as a cook and as a chef.
Essentially, I don’t feel there is anything wrong with creating a dish in pursuit of an aesthetic, just as long it makes sense in the context of a menu and sound fundamentals are observed. For example, the flowers on this dish taste earthy, pungent and slightly bitter; as such, they were balanced with the acidity of the vinaigrette, the sweetness of the beets and candied ginger, and the richness of the goat cheese.
My goal is always to capture the guests’ attention with the presentation of the plate and then to keep the guest engaged by presenting various textures, temperatures and flavors. Whether used as a garnish or as the focal point for a desired aesthetic, these edible flowers are a welcome addition to the “toolbox” and help communicate to our guests that we use fresh seasonal product.