Make This Fiery, Bright Salad When You (or Your Vegetables) Need a Pick-Me-Up

September 23, 2016

Every technique I have in my repertoire came from somewhere: a person I cooked with, a recipe I read, the memory of something delicious once eaten and then played with until what I create and what I remember are close enough that I am happy.

Every time I cook something or use a learned technique, it reminds me of the person I learned it from, and in an odd way, it’s always like having a visit with them, even if they are far gone from my current life. These spicy roasted vegetables—informed by two techniques learned from friend and my travels—are no exception.

First, the technique for roasting beets: I learned it years ago, at the beginning of my cheffing career. I greatly admired and occasionally worked with a woman who, while the same age as me, had already spent time in some pretty legendary restaurants: Chez Panisse in Berkeley, L'Arpège in Paris, and Alforno in Providence, Rhode Island. Learning from her was almost as rewarding (and honestly probably much more pleasant) as working in those places myself.

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Her method of roasting beets creates soft vegetable with skins that easily slip off and tender flesh that is eaten as easily with a spoon as with a fork. The long slow roasting-steaming also helps pull out all the sweetness of the beets. It takes a bit of time to cook them this way, but I really believe it’s worth it: I think this recipe can even convince diehard beet haters—who I suspect hate beets because they’ve only ever eaten the canned kind—to become beet lovers.

Once the beets are roasted and peeled, the rest of the recipe goes very easily. I don’t tend to peel the carrots and the turnips because the skins don’t bother me. I use white Japanese turnips in this recipe, but if you have are larger turnips with a tough skin, you might want to peel them first.

The second technique—dressing the vegetables with harissa and citrus—is one I learned on a trip to Morocco which, despite a rich and fabulous culinary tradition, is a damn hard place to get a decent meal unless you are staying in someone’s home and they are a good chef. Starved for decent food on the road, I reluctantly agreed to pre-order dinner from the hotel I was staying at, expecting the usual combinations of tough meat tagine and sloppily thrown-together touristic classics I had found in most of the hotels.

Instead, I was presented with one of the finest meals I have ever had in Morocco: a multi-course display that made me understand why people fall deeply, madly in love with Moroccan food. A proper Moroccan meal consists of many small plates of different vegetable preparations, as well as the more classic centerpiece of tagine or braised meat and couscous.

Amongst all the dishes, the one I really fell in love with was a simple plate of wild greens, sautéed with a little garlic, preserved lemon, and harissa. Ever since, I have embraced the technique with or without the preserved lemons as an easy and quick pick-up to almost any vegetables I am preparing. And every time, I think of my stay in a delightful old Riad hotel, drinking chilled rose and discovering what Moroccan food really can be and how delicious it truly is when prepared properly.

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chef/owner of Nina June Restaurant,