The fall rains came early this month to the Willamette Valley, and they have scarcely let up for more than a few hours since. The ripening tomatoes split and opened like flowers. The vines blackened and finally dropped their remaining fruit, green spotted with rust and sometimes hairy with mold. I’ve gotten wet and muddy as I pull up vines and dismantle trellises, and frustrated as I fumble with knotted wet twine. But the grey clouds hiding the sun have a silver lining: These are our salad days.
We missed our greens last spring, when the weather turned unseasonably warm. The lettuce, mizuna, arugula, and spinach all flowered before they could grow to eating size. We ate some tough, bitter salads while waiting for the cucumbers to appear and the tomatoes to ripen.
Salad days go fast here in fall, too. Some years the weather stays too hot for too long, and again the greens go to seed. Other years the first freeze comes too soon, in early October. Growth stops, and the little plants begin to rot.
But as long as the rains keep falling, the garden greens thrive, immune to the diseases discoloring and shriveling the tomato and cucurbit vines. Slugs and snails, if I let them, will eat everything but the chicories, but a daily patrol ensures that the humans get some leaves, too.
So for dinner at a friend’s house last weekend I happily offered to make a salad. I would prepare a big bowlful of tender young leaves of spinach, mizuna, arugula, chicory, and nasturtium. While harvesting I pulled up some Chioggia beets, the Italian variety with the candy-striped roots. I cut off the leaves and chilled them to cook later. The roots would provide contrasting color for the salad.
These beets have posed a problem for me: When I cook them their colors run. The stripes disappear, and the roots end up looking like red beets with anemia. So I decided we would eat the beets raw.
I grated them coarsely and tasted them. The raw shreds had the earthiness of cooked beets without the sweetness that disguises the roots’ inherent bitterness. I bathed the shreds in vinaigrette; that didn’t help much. But then I added a little sugar, and the bitterness seemingly vanished. I knew what to do: I would bring the beets to our friends’ house in a lidded container with the vinaigrette, and then dress the greens with the mixture right before dinner.
In just two hours in their bath, however, the beets lost their stripes. The shreds were now uniformly pink. To preserve the stripes, I should have done the grating and the dressing all at the last minute. Still, the pink shreds of beet were pretty, especially in contrast with the deep greens of the leafy vegetables.
Fall Green Salad with Shredded Raw Beets
I used tarragon in the dressing because the plant will soon die back and I won’t taste tarragon again until early summer. But I could have instead used some of the green seeds on the five-foot-tall fennel plant by the deck; I would have crushed them lightly in a mortar to bring out their flavor. Cumin would be delicious with the beets, too.
My husband would have liked me to use unrefined sunflower oil instead of olive oil. For many people the flavor of sunflower oil would be too strange, but for the two of us that would have been a good choice.
If you don’t have Chioggia beets or don’t care about stripes, you can use red or yellow beets in this recipe instead.
1 teaspoon minced tarragon
¼ teaspoon fine salt
½ teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons lemon juice
½ teaspoon prepared mustard
A few grindings black pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
½ pound Chioggia beetroots, peeled and coarsely grated
Combine all the ingredients but the beets in a pint-size jar or other container. Cap the jar, and shake well. Open the jar, and add the beets. Shake again.
If you want the beet shreds to keep their stripes, serve the beets immediately, with their dressing, over fall salad greens. Otherwise, store the jar in the refrigerator, and take it out 15 minutes before serving the salad.