A Classic Combo: Beet Salad With Citrus, Ricotta, and Pistachio Vinaigrette

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[Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

I'm all for innovation and wild and crazy ideas, but sometimes it's okay to find a winning formula and stick with it, especially when that time is dinnertime. There's a reason beets and citrus are a staple of winter salads: They go insanely well together. But within those constraints, there's pretty much no end to the combinations of salads you can make.

It's safe to say that I rarely make the exact same beet and citrus salad twice. I'll swap out the beet variety, or the citrus, or the nuts. I'll add bitter greens or boiled eggs. I may add a creamy cheese, or maybe I'll spice and candy those nuts. This particular salad, made with roasted beets, grapefruit, oranges, fresh ricotta, and a pistachio vinaigrette, is not all that different from my beet, citrus, and pine nut salad. You can criticize me for that. I'm okay with it.

I start by cooking a couple of different varieties of beets. There's more than one way to cook a beet, but I tend to prefer dry roasting methods over boiling—they come out with a more concentrated sweet and earthy flavor that way. Of all the methods I've tried, foil pouches work best. When you toss beets, a little oil, and a few herb sprigs in tightly sealed foil pouches, the beets end up cooking in their own vaporized juices, in a sort of steam–roast hybrid. Once they're roasted—which takes about an hour and a half of unsupervised time in a 375°F (190°C) oven—the skins slip off easily under cool running water. An hour and a half of roasting is a long time for a single salad, but luckily, that's a step you can do in advance. Just cool the beets and throw them in the fridge, and they'll be ready to go whenever you are.

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For the vinaigrette, I gently pound pistachios with a granite mortar and pestle until they're broken up, but not totally pulverized. You can also use a knife if you don't have a mortar and pestle. If you decide to go the knife route, take a five-minute break after chopping and consider what previous choices have led to your mortar-and-pestle-free existence, and what steps you might take in the future to ameliorate the situation.

The nice thing about including nuts in a vinaigrette is that the small particles of nut add extra agitation as you're whisking it together, which makes forming a stable emulsion really easy. I set aside some of the pounded pistachios for garnish, then whisk together the rest with minced shallots, lemon juice, honey, herbs, and extra-virgin olive oil. (Read up more on the science of vinaigrettes and emulsions here.)

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With the citrus, I'm honestly not all that picky. I do like the bittersweet flavor of grapefruit, but oranges or pomelos or even bits of Meyer lemon would do just fine. The key is to cut them properly so as to minimize the amount of stringy pith that gets into the salad. That means either cutting the fruit into suprèmes, or peeling and slicing it crosswise in order to keep those individual bits of pith short.

To boost the citrus flavor in the vinaigrette, I add to it the juice from whatever fruit I'm using as well.

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When I'm ready to serve the salad, I cut all the beets into bite-size pieces—spraying your cutting board with a thin coating of nonstick spray will make cleaning up red beet juice much easier, by the way!—then toss them with the citrus and vinaigrette. The only real key here is to make sure to toss the red beets separately from everything else; otherwise, they end up turning the whole salad pink. Not the end of the world, but not as pretty on the plate.

After that, I spread a big spoonful of fresh ricotta cheese over the plate, pile on the beets and citrus, add a few more dollops of ricotta, drizzle any remaining dressing around, and then sprinkle it all with the remaining pistachios.

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A great beet salad is sort of like watching Star Wars, or waking up next to my wife, Adri, every morning: familiar, comforting, and exciting all at once.