This Beetroot And Sour Cherry Salad Is A Study In Contrasts

Spending your money on ripe sour cherries is a serious commitment. For me, the promise of cherry pie doesn't outweigh the pressure to pit and/or freeze kilos of very expensive fruit before it turns to soup, which happens seemingly overnight - but apparently, the promise of a marinated beetroot salad sure does.

Such is the power of a great cookbook; in this case, From a Polish Country House Kitchen by Anne Applebaum and Danielle Crittenden, which I received as a Valentine's Day gift and instantly became a favourite.

It's possibly the best cookbook I've ever owned: The recipes are great, but more importantly, cooking from it has developed my seasonal ingredient instincts in a way nothing else ever has.

I suspect this is because Pennsylvania and Poland have very similar climates and growing seasons, so traditional Polish recipes are all but guaranteed to work with the freshest ingredients I have access to.

The first recipe I knew I had to make from this book was a summer one: Beetroot and fresh sour cherry salad with a garlicky lemon vinaigrette. It was full of ingredients and flavours I love - beetroots, lemons, fresh garlic, tart cherries - combined in a way I'd never considered before, which is my favourite type of recipe. I'd always been reluctant to buy sour cherries, but even in February I knew that when the time came, I'd be ready.

I've been dreaming about this salad all winter and spring, and this weekend, I finally got my chance. Sour cherries had hit my farmer's market, but so had everything else I needed: Beautiful baby beetroot, purple candy onions, and super-fresh hard neck garlic were all on sale. (Something tells me all of these are also making their way to Polish markets right about now.) I bought one of everything, hurried home, and built a dinner menu around the weirdest salad I'd ever made.

My hopes were impossibly high, and this recipe exceeded every single one of them. By all rights, each main ingredient should overwhelm the others - beetroots are sweet, but powerfully earthy; sour cherries can be almost too tart, especially when combined with lemons; raw garlic is shouty and aggressive - but it never happens. Somehow, everything works. If you're a beetroot lover, you owe it to yourself to give this one a try; I'll be making it every summer for the rest of my life.

Beetroot, Sour Cherry, and Garlic Salad

(Barely adapted from From a Polish Country House Kitchen by Anne Applebaum and Danielle Crittenden)

For once, I'm not going to tell you it's OK to make this with whatever you have lying around. Sour cherries are absolutely non-negotiable - sweet ones won't provide enough contrast - and honestly, I don't even think you should substitute extra-virgin olive oil.

If you don't own a cherry pitter, don't panic; you can smash them with the flat of a knife like olives or use a chopstick to quickly remove the pits.

Ingredients

  • 500 grams small or medium red beets
  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest, finely grated
  • ¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • ¾ teaspoon table salt, plus more to taste
  • Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 2 tablespoons minced onion (red, white, yellow, green, shallot - use what you have)
  • 2 cloves garlic, grated or finely minced
  • 2 teaspoons neutral oil (I used vegetable oil)
  • 250 grams fresh sour cherries, stemmed and pitted

Instructions

Wash your beetroots, trim off any scraggly roots, and cook them in their skins using your preferred method. I steamed mine on a rack in the Instant Pot for six minutes at high pressure (with a natural release), which was perfect, but timing varies with the size of your beetroots and the method you choose.

Wrapped in foil (or crusted in salt) and roasted at 400ºF, most small-to-medium beetroots will be done in about an hour; steamed whole on the stovetop, they will take between ten to thirty minutes. Just be sure they're tender all the way through, then set them aside to cool to room temperature.

When the beetroots have cooled, gather the rest of your ingredients. Combine the lemon zest, juice, salt, pepper, honey, onion, garlic, and oil in a mixing bowl and stir with a fork to combine.

Peel the beetroots - the skins should slip right off - and cut them into half-inch dice, or smaller if your cherries are especially tiny. Add the beetroots to the lemon mixture in the bowl, stirring to coat. If you haven't already, stem and pit the cherries, then throw them in the bowl too. Stir everything together, taste, and adjust the seasoning if needed.

Serve right away or cover and refrigerate until needed. This will last for about a week in the fridge, and truly gets better the longer it sits.

Like any other marinated beetroot salad, this begs to be played off something rich, fatty, and salty. I served it with fried chicken cutlet sandwiches, and it was such a good combination that I ended up piling the beetroot and cherry salad right on top of the cutlets for my second helping.

Grilled steaks, chicken, or sausages are obvious summertime pairings, but this salad would be right at home next to - or inside of - a particularly luxurious grilled cheese sandwich.


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