Thursday, December 4, 2008

Beet, Prune, and Walnut salad

The way I write about beets you'd think that life was always rosy in my beetland. But believe it or not, there was a beet dish I spent my entire childhood disliking: a beet, prune, and walnut salad. Luckily, I didn't have to eat it much. It was reserved for holidays as part of zakuski table (Russian spread of cold appetizers similar to tapas). The funny thing was that this salad was made out of all the good stuff. There wasn't an ingredient in it that I didn't normally like. But the cooking method (or lack there of) was the problem. In all the other Russian dishes that we made, beets were cooked, but in this salad they were left raw. And let me tell you something -- raw beets are tough as a nail. They are not juicy. They are not sweet. They are just tough. After sitting in the fridge overnight with mayo, they softened some, but still never compared to the deliciousness of cooked beets. I always had a feeling this salad had potential, but it was't until today that I finally did something about it.

People often ask how I come up with my recipes. This beet salad seems like a perfect example to show you how it works. Welcome to my head!

It all started with leftover cooked beets. After staring at them every time I opened the fridge yesterday, I remembered the beet, prune, and walnut salad of my childhood. The part I didn't like about that salad were the raw beets. I was always curious to try that salad with cooked beets and this seemed like a perfect opportunity. I picked up some prunes and walnuts at the store, chopped them up and added them to my grated beets.

Now the dressing... I didn't want to go the mayo route, and was looking for an alternative. To see where I was with the current mix of flavors, I added some olive oil and salt, then tasted my salad. Flat. It needed acidity. Some vinegar would not be out of place, but I had a better idea. How about pomegranate molasses*? It's a quirky ingredient. You can't throw it around willy-nilly, like preserved lemons. Those taste good on anything (I might draw the line at dessert). Pomegranate molasses are very particular: thick, very tart, barely sweet, and a little nutty. They either make a dish or break a dish. They work exceptionally well with red meats and nuts, but don't work at all with fish and seafood. I knew that pomegranate molasses would hit it off with walnuts right away, and was hoping they'd get along with beets (that's as meaty as vegetables come). I added the molasses and tasted again. I was on the right track. The salad was getting perkier and perkier with each spoon.

Now my salad needed a little sugar for balance. I added it in the form of honey. Taste again. The sweetness/acidity level was now good, but the salad lacked a certain savoriness. I added more salt. Taste again. Better, but still missing something. Onion! How could I forget that?! I minced a shallot and added it to my salad. A red onion would do in a pinch, but a shallot was more appropriate for this delicate salad. Another pinch of salt. Taste again. Yum! This was fabulous.

Creating a dish is like putting together a puzzle. You mess with the pieces until they fit. Taste, taste, and taste some more. Oh, and don't forget the salt. If you are an obsessive recipe follower, try improvising sometimes. You might like it.

This wasn't supposed to be a blog post. This was just supposed to be a way to use up old beets and make lunch while I was at it. But this salad turned out so well, I decided to blog about it to remind myself what I did for next time. While I was taking the pictures, the flavors had a chance to blend and the salad got even better. Next time, I'll make sure to let it sit for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Unfortunately, I didn't measure anything while I was making this salad. But it's pretty easy to adjust the ingredients to taste.

Beet, Prune, and Walnut Salad

Serves 4 as the first course

2 medium beets (3-4 inches in diameter)
12 pitted prunes, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 cup minced shallots (2 medium)
1.5 Tbsp pomegranate molasses*
2 tsp honey
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
  1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Trim the beets and wash them well, scrubbing the skin, but don't peel. Dry with paper towels. Wrap each beet tightly in foil. Place on a foil lined baking sheet and bake until tender 1.5-2.5 hours. Pierce the beets with a knife through foil to test for doneness. When they are done, the knife should go through them relatively easily, but they'll never get as mushy as potatoes.
  2. Unwrap the beets and cool until warm. Peel by rubbing with your hands. The skin will come right off.
  3. Grate the beets on the large holes of a box grater or using the grating disk of a food processor. Cool completely. Beets can be prepared up to 3 days in advance and stored covered in the fridge.
  4. Add the prunes, walnuts, shallots, mollasses, honey, oil, a generous pinch of salt, and a small pinch of pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more mollasses for acidity, more honey for sweetness, and don't forget the salt or the flavors will be out of focus. Let sit for at least 15 minutes before serving. Can be stored in the fridge for 2 days.
* Pomegranate molasses are available at middle eastern grocery stores. If you are in the Boston area, Russo's, Eastern Lamejun Bakers, and all the other Armenian stores in Watertown carry it. I wouldn't be surprised if you can find it at Whole Foods and even regular supermarkets. Look for it in the middle eastern section of ethnic foods. It is also known as "concentrated pomegranate juice," not to be confuse with pomegranate juice from concentrate ;) The molasses one is very thick and is sold in the pantry isles. Another option is ordering it from amazon. The good news is that it never spoils, so once you find it, you can use it for years.

If finding pomegranate molasses is tricky, you can substitute balsamic vinegar, red or white wine vinegar, or lemon juice. You'll have to play around with the quantities. Start with a few teaspoons, taste, and add more as needed.


Anonymous said...

I've never heard of pomegranate molasses, much less seen it in any grocery store. Would you recommend a substitution for the market-impaired?

Helen said...

Hi Anonymous,

You can get pomegranate molasses at any middle eastern store. If you are in the Boston area, Russo's in Watertown carries it and I wouldn't be surprised if you can find it at Whole Foods and even regular supermarket. Look for it in the middle eastern section of ethnic foods. It is also known as "concentrated pomegranate juice."

If finding it is tricky, you can substitute balsamic vinegar, red or white wine vinegar, or lemon juice. You'll have to play around with the quantities. Start with a few teaspoons, taste, and add more as needed.


supa said...

1.5 Tbsp pomegranate molasses* ???

I Cannot Believe It's True and Real Russian Salad.

Helen said...

I never said my version was traditional. I just said it was good :) Considering how many Armenian and Georgian dishes are served as part of a "Russian" table, the use of pomegranate molasses is not that outrageous of an idea.

Many French restaurants use Indian spices and Soy sauce. Does this prevent them from being French? Authenticity is a funny thing. At some point all Authentic dishes were foreign (this includes tomatoes in Italian sauces ;)

Anonymous said...

to my experence I discribe raw beets as "hard". I often make my own pomogarne molasses, It is very easy.

Julia said...

Yummy! Your blog is such an inspiration, I keep thinking about your posts for days and keep coming back to reread them. I'm going to have to try making this salad some time, maybe for new years.

My family has a variaiton of this salad with pine nuts and raw garlic and sour cream/mayo, and cooked beets.

Helen said...

Julia: your version with raw garlic and pine nuts sounds delicious. I'll have to try it sometimes.

Anonymous: would you mind posting your recipe for pomegranate molasses? Is seems like many people have a hard time finding it, so I am sure they'd appreciate a recipe

Anonymous said...

I am sure you know about simply recipes, I recommend this post:

fyi I am not Elise

Helen said...

Thank you so much for this link. It looks like it's quite easy to make, so if you really can't find pomegranate molasses, you can make your own. I would still buy it if at all possible for the following reasons:

1) it doesn't seem any cheaper to make your own

2) I am not sure how long home-made pomegranate molasses last, and the recipes don't seem to indicate that. The commercially made ones have a particular sugar/acidity level making them not perishable (I've used my one bottle for years). The process of making it in home conditions is not nearly as precise (particularly if you've never seen what it looks like and don't know exactly how much to reduce it). So I am not sure it would be a good idea to store it for years like you would commercial stuff.


~M said...

I've made Elise's version of pomegranate molasses and there is no need to worry about how long it will'll eat it up in no time. I drizzled it on everything from chicken to ice cream, used it in charoset (Passover dish), concocted salad dressings with it, etc. It tastes phenomenal and is easy to make.

In my opinion, making many condiments or food from scratch is often more expensive than buying storebought (homemade mayo, pasta sauce, or applesauce would be the first three examples I can think of), but the homemade versions are hugely superior in taste and quality of ingredients.

Unknown said...

I am trying to find a recipe for a salad very similar to this but has mayonaise and garlic in it. My russian ex-girlfriend would make it all the time butI have no idea what it is called. I think its Obleet or something like it. please help

Helen said...


A similar russian salad involved raw beets, prunes, walnuts, and mayo. I am sure you could add garlic too, but I don't remember my Mom adding it.


Alla said...

Interesting that the salad in your childhood was made out of raw beets. I have not heard about eating beets raw until I got here

Our version was always made with cookeed beets and garlic