This loud-spoken salad uses dark, slightly bitter caramel to bind a seed-and-nut brittle, which crunches over earthy roasted beets, sour-sweet citrus, and fresh herbs. Lots of contrast on a single plate.
Beets are one of my favorite vegetables: dramatic because of their color, ranging from Dracula red to sunrise gold; low maintenance because they store well and can be cooked a handful of different ways, depending on your mood. I like to steam-roast beets. Give them a wash, chuck the whole unpeeled beet into a baking dish, add some water, cover the dish, and roast until tender. When fully cooked, their skins slip right off.
Now about that brittle: There are two ways to make caramel—wet or dry. The wet method dissolves sugar in a bit of water, then evaporates the water and caramelizes the sugar. The dry method cooks sugar alone over direct heat. The wet method cooks more evenly and takes a bit longer, which gives cooks more control, but it is more prone to crystallization. The dry method feels crazy and goes quickly, but I find it to be more successful.
Crystallization happens because the sugar is suspended in a supersaturated solution and wants to return to a granular state. Once one crystal forms, more will attach and grow on top of it. This is why most caramel recipes encourage you to wash down the sides of the pan (where the crystals normally form) and tell you not to stir the caramel (because that movement encourages crystal development). I like to simply heat the sugar until it starts to brown and just hold my nerve. It will look too dark, but it’s not.
Caramel, like a handful of things in the kitchen, requires not that much time, but your full attention. If it goes awry, it’s not a failure—just not perfect. Let the pan soak and the caramel will rinse away easily. Then try again.
- Prep time 40 minutes
- Cook time 1 hour
- Serves 4 to 6
medium beets, any variety
sliced almonds, toasted
shelled, roasted, unsalted pistachios, chopped
white and/or black sesame seeds, toasted
1 3/4 teaspoons
extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
sprigs fresh cilantro, leaves picked (optional)
sprigs fresh mint, leaves picked (optional)
- Heat the oven to 350°F.
- Wash the beets and remove any greens, if present. Place the beets in a baking dish (they should be in a single layer—an 8x8-inch dish works well) and sprinkle with salt. Add ½ cup of water to the baking dish, then cover with tin foil. Steam-roast until the beets are tender, 25 to 45 minutes.
- While the beets are cooking, make the brittle: Spray a sheet pan with nonstick spray or line with a silicone mat. Combine all of the nuts and seeds.
- In a medium pot, heat the sugar over medium-high heat to make a dry caramel. In about 5 minutes, the sugar will brown and bubble, usually in the center first. Gently lift the pan to swirl and pull any uncooked sugar into the melting mass. Return to the heat to continue to cook until the caramel is uniformly melted, deep amber, and just starting to smoke, about 10 minutes. (You can swirl as needed for even cooking, but try to do so as infrequently and gently as possible to prevent crystallization.)
- Once the caramel is ready, cut the heat, swiftly stir in the nuts and seeds, immediately pour onto the sheet pan, and use an offset spatula to spread into a layer as thin as possible. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of salt on top. Let cool completely, then break and/or smash into shards.
- When the beets are tender, remove them from the oven and let cool to the touch. Use a kitchen towel to wipe off the skins, or peel with a paring knife.
- Cut the beets into irregular pieces, dress with the olive oil, a big pinch of salt, and a turn of black pepper. Let cool completely then transfer to a platter.
- Remove the orange peel and pith with a knife, then cut into ¼-inch-thick rounds (or half-moons, if you’d like). Remove the grapefruit peel and pith with a knife, then segment. Slice the lemon in half lengthwise, then into very thin half-moons (peel included!). Remove any seeds as you come across them.
- Dot the beets with the citrus pieces, top with the herbs (if using) and some brittle, then sprinkle everything with a final pinch of salt. (You can save any extra brittle in an airtight container for salads—or snacks—for the rest of the week.)