Birmingham Beet Salad from “Frank Stitt’s Southern Table”

Jason Sholar is an exemplary human being. He ran the “Secret Cookbook Santa” for me this year and completely on his own accord sent me one of my most desired cookbooks from my Amazon wish list: “Frank Stitt’s Southern Table.”

This gigantic beautifully photographed book has an introduction by Pat Conroy who wrote “The Prince of Toydes” (as my mom would say) in which Pat calls Highlands Bar & Grill–Frank Sitt’s restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama–the best restaurant in America. I actually love this introduction: it paints a portrait of the chef quite beautifully. Let me quote from the final two paragraphs:

“Over a year ago, my wife, the novelist Cassandra King, and I joined Frank and Pardis [Frank’s Wife] for a spectacular meal at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant in New York. It was a meal for the ages, and it was one of the great joys of my life to watch Frank smell each dish as it arrived steaming from the kitchen and his eyes light up with pleasure as he tasted each bite with discernment and lapidary pleasure. The restaurant was as formal and plush and forbidding as HIghlands is welcoming and all-inclusive. The meal was Proustian and fabulous and indescribable, as all great meals are.

When Cassandra and I bid farewell to Frank and Pardis that night and walked toward our hotel with all the clamor and splendor and mystery of the great city swarming around us, we both agreed that Alain Ducasse was a splendid chef, but that he was no Frank Stitt.”

For my first foray into Frank’s Southern Table I decided on his “Autumn Beet Salad with Spiced Pecans, Pears and Fourme D’Ambert.”

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I think my attempt at this salad came out quite pretty though I made a few substitutions. I was out of pecans, so I candied almonds instead. This isn’t the greatest choice–almonds are difficult to stab on to a fork–but they added a needed nuttiness to an otherwise nutless salad. I could type out the entire detailed recipe, but I’ll just sketch it for you. You can actually look at the picture and figure it out. What makes it special is the combination of candied pecans, crisped slab bacon bits, sliced pear, fresh-cooked beets and bleu cheese. Take lettuce leaves (the fancy, bitter ones) and toss with oil and vinegar (or make a sherry vinaigrette, like Frank suggests). Then roast beets (Frank’s method worked well: put beets on foil sheet, drizzle with olive oil, red wine vinegar, some salt and pepper, fold up and roast in the oven at 350 for 45 to 60 minutes (until fork tender)). Slice a pear thinly and crisp the bacon bits. Mound the lettuce on a plate and “scatter the beets, pears, lardons, and pecans around and arrange a wedge of cheese on each plate.”

That’s it: a French classic given the Southern treatment. Like Madame Bovary as read by Dolly Pardon. With less cleavage.

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