Julia Moskin: Think Beet and Goat Cheese Salad Is a Cliché? A New Recipe Proves It’s a Classic

Vinegar and other acids break down geosmin, which is why vinaigrettes and beets are such a good marriage. Opening up that marriage to include cheese is almost always a good idea, especially the big-flavored ones like blue, feta and goat that make this classic recipe complex and satisfying.

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Beets are often described as “earthy,” a more lyrical way of saying that they taste like dirt.

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Rikki Snyder for The New York Times

And yet, although beets, vinaigrette and cheese often inhabit the same bowl, they do not always achieve a lasting union. I have made many a beet and goat cheese salad at home that turned out badly: The beets, however nicely roasted, were bland and earthy; the cheese crumbly and dry.

I have also eaten countless versions in restaurants over the years, but the one that haunts my memory is from Locanda Verde in TriBeCa. So I called the chef, Andrew Carmellini, to ask why. (As the inventor of a corned beet sandwich — that is not a typo — and an inveterate maker of beet tartares and risottos, he qualifies as New York City’s beet maven.)

“Beets are like sponges,” he said immediately. “They soak up anything you throw at them.”

That, he said, is the key to a good beet salad: Dress the beets warm, so the flavors are absorbed, and then dress them again when you serve them, to bring the beet-dressing combination to its peak. (The same rule applies to other root vegetables, like carrots and potatoes.)

Similarly, to bring out the best in the cheese, he whips it with a little oil, salt, pepper and milk until loose and fluffy. “It still tastes like itself, but with a texture and flavor that brings the dish together,” he said, reminiscing about the versions he’s made over the decades. “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t making beet and goat cheese salad.”

The combination turned up around the Bay Area in the early 1980s, and whizzed down the West Coast to Los Angeles, where Wolfgang Puck molded a camera-ready Hollywood version. He credits the arrival of multicolored and baby beets for turning the heads of the well-heeled crowd at Spago, who had probably never before seen a humble beet on a restaurant menu. His beet and goat cheese napoleons put Mr. Puck on the map, helped define modern California cuisine, and prompted a thousand copycats.

Nearly 40 years later, beet and cheese salads are ubiquitous on American menus, and still generating new variations. They are among the most popular salads at the trendproof Cheesecake Factory chain, and one of the best at the trendsetting De Maria in NoLIta, where beets are teamed with yogurt, cucumbers, raspberries and pistachios.

Many cooks think of beets as seasonless, ever-present near the onions and carrots at the supermarket. But Mr. McFadden knows his vegetables, having worked on a farm in Maine for almost two years after passing through ambitious New York kitchens like Blue Hill and Momofuku Ssam Bar.

In his new book, “Six Seasons: A New Way With Vegetables,” he wrote that beets have two distinct seasons, which dictate how they are treated in the kitchen. (Thinking in terms of six seasons instead of four better reflects how vegetables grow in temperate climates, he said. Summer is divided into early, mid and late.)

The small beets you see at farmers’ markets, early to midsummer, are harvested young. They have tall, appetizing leafy tops and, like baby carrots, they are thin-skinned, juicy and tender enough to eat raw. The hulking, tougher specimens harvested in the fall are around all year. They are the same beets but grown to full maturity and cold-stored for months after the harvest.

Steamed early beets are wonderful in this recipe; roasted fall beets make it seasonless. Any color can be used for this recipe, but a combination — beets come in orange, yellow, white, purple and striped — produces the most tension. And that’s a good thing.

Recipes: Marinated Beet Salad With Whipped Goat Cheese

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