"Can you bring the salad?" A harmless question from my in-laws in advance of the big Thanksgiving meal they host each year in Boston. The challenge: I'm in New York. This is the second year I've been tasked with bringing the salad, and thus it's the second year in which I've tried to think of something that I can make over the weekend, then bring with me on the train to Boston, and finally eat on Thursday with no loss in quality. I actually love these conundrums.
Sure, I could just ask them to do all the shopping for me by emailing them a list of lettuces and leafy greens, plus the vinaigrette ingredients, and then trying to find a corner in their kitchen to throw it all together right before dinner. But what's the fun in that? And frankly, it shifts so much of the work back onto them—and they do more than enough hosting a huge crew every year—that it hardly seems fair.
A couple of years ago, my solution was a roasted-brassica salad, loaded with potatoes, sunchokes, and frisée. I'll say with no modesty at all that it's pretty great. But it still required asking my in-laws to pick up the frisée. My goal this year was to come 100% prepared and self-sufficient.
What I ended up with was a hearty salad that combines chewy whole grains, winter beets (all parts, from the roasted roots to the sautéed leaves and stalks), toasted pecans, and crisp pickled apples, which add the perfect refreshing and sweet-tart kick to keep each bite truly interesting.
For the grains, I used whole red winter wheat, which still has its bran. (You can read up on whole grains in our guide here.) Even when fully cooked, they retain an impressive amount of chew. It's a texture I love, but if you want something more tender (and quicker-cooking), you could opt for a polished grain, like farro or barley.
To prepare the beets, I buy whole bunches, preferably in a variety of colors, with the greens still attached. If for some reason you can't find whole bunches, you can substitute Swiss chard or kale for the beet greens. I roast the roots until they're tender, then peel and dice them, and sauté the chopped-up leaves and stems with olive oil and garlic until they're tender as well.
My biggest point of pride in this salad is the pickled apples. I'm sure I'm not the first person to pickle an apple, but I don't think I've ever come across one before, and it really is the secret weapon here. I first thought of it as I wondered how I could slip apple into a make-ahead salad without the apples turning a murky shade of brown, and remembered my own tests on this topic from last year.
What I found was that salt was by far the best method out of those that are most accessible to home cooks. By soaking apples in a salty brine, I was able to keep browning at bay for more than a day. If I'm making a salty brine, I thought, why not make it a pickle brine with vinegar and aromatics as well? Not only would that keep my apples from browning for quite a while, it would give them just the blast of acidity I needed to balance out the sweet beets, earthy grains, and nutty pecans.
What I settled on was a quick-pickling brine made from white wine vinegar, salt, and sugar and infused with tarragon—the herb's flavor really carries through. Here's another trick I used: I put the diced apples in a metal mixing bowl nestled in a larger bowl filled with ice water. Then I poured the hot brine on top of them and stirred it to cool it down rapidly with the help of the ice bath. The secret there: Heat is yet one more weapon in the battle to stop apples from browning, but because I'd rapidly chilled them after the initial shock of heat, the apples maintained their crunchy, raw texture. Win-win.
Toast some pecans, toss it all together, and it's ready to go. Even better is that this is a salad that can be completely combined, vinaigrette and all, as far in advance as you like—it only gets better as it all mingles, and there's not a single ingredient that will wilt in an unappealing way in the interim. (As for the vinaigrette, I just used our very simple and classic one, with Dijon, shallot, garlic, white wine vinegar, and olive oil.)
So, can I bring the salad this Thanksgiving? Absolutely. A couple hundred miles ain't nothing for this guy.