Here’s the thing about serving a beet salad as your first course at Thanksgiving: it’s nutritious enough (beets are healthy!) to justify all of the hedonism that’s to come AND you can serve it with good cheese which, when you think about it, rarely makes an appearance at Thanksgiving. Where else would you serve cheese? With the turkey? With the pecan pie? So starting with a beet salad makes good sense, especially if you buy a cheese like Humboldt Fog (like I did for this salad) or something even bolder like Roquefort.
As for the beets, the thing to know is that as dirty and difficult as beets may seem at the store, once you wrap them in aluminum foil and roast them for an hour, those dirty skins slip right off.
Here, let me show you. Buy bunches of gold beets and red beets. Cut off the leaves (you can saute them later, if you’d like) and trim down the beets so they’re just muddy orbs. Rinse them off in the sink the best that you can but don’t worry about getting every granule of dirt off. Now pat the beets dry and make little foil packets of same-colored beets, 3 to 4 to a packet. In each packet, drizzle some olive oil, sprinkle in some salt and add a few sprigs of fresh thyme. Seal the packets up tight and put all of the packets on a foil-lined cookie sheet. Into a 350 oven it goes for about an hour; you’ll know they’re done when you can slide a knife into all of the beets easily. Take the tray out of the oven and open all the packets to let the beets cool a little:
But don’t cool them too much–you still want them warm enough to absorb the flavors you’re about to add.
Now for the surgery. Start with the golden beets (they’ll stain your board less). Take a warm brown orb of beet and rub it with a paper towel. The skin will slip right off and you’ll be left with a shimmering, bright yellow globe–perfectly clean. Place that in a clean bowl and continue until all of the golden beets are peeled.
Do the same with the red beets, keeping the red beets in a separate bowl. Here’s what your work surface will look like when you’re done:
Making sure not to contaminate your pristine golden beets with any red from your knife, slice the beets into rings and wedges. Same with the red.
To the bowl with the yellow beets, add a big glug of good olive oil, another glug of white wine vinegar or champagne vinegar or white balsamic, a sprinkling of salt, a grinding of pepper and a few sprigs of thyme:
Stir all around and taste. They should taste wildly delicious–if they don’t, you probably need more vinegar and salt. Adjust and then do the same with the red beets, only with them use red wine vinegar or good balsamic:
You can let those beets marinate in those bowls for several hours, covered with plastic, while you finish up the rest of the meal.
When it’s time to serve, simply lay the golden beets on one side of each plate and in the bowl where the beets were marinating add big handfuls of mache or arugula. Toss in the leftover liquid and, if necessary, add more olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper to taste.
Pile the greens in the center of each plate and lay the red beets on the opposite side. Finally, cut big wedges of your cheese and lay on top of the greens.
There you are: a lovely, vibrant salad to start your Thanksgiving feast. The cheese-lovers in your midst will thank you.