This is one of the most flavorful and beautiful salads imaginable if you follow a few guidelines. First of all, it is important to oven-roast the beets for maximum sweetness. The will never be the same if boiled. The next thing is to slice the peeled beets into thin, even rounds that will look like glistening jewels on the serving platter against the translucent pink of red onions, the orange of habanero pepper, and the spring-like green of thyme sprigs. Be sure to slice the onion and habanero very thin.
Before starting to work, have ready six 8-inch squares of aluminum foil and choose a pretty serving platter with a little rim.. Plain white is best, though I sometimes use black pottery. One time, I arrange the beets on a mustard colored square platter with beet colored decorations.
6 medium-size beets. about 2 pounds
Olive oil and salt for seasoning beets
1 medium-size red onion, halved and sliced into thin half-moons
10 sprigs fresh thyme or 1.2 teaspoon dried
1 orange habanero chile or a red jalapeno, cut into thin slices (use gloves if desired)
2 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons mild white vinegar
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
! tablespoon spice mixture (see recipe)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Rinse the beets under cold running water and let dry thoroughly. Rub some olive oil over each beet and sprinkle with salt. Place each in the center of a foil square and wrap tightly. Roast in preheated oven for 45 minutes to an hour. Let cool thoroughly before unwrapping.
Peel the beets and cut into thin, even slices before arranging on a large serving platter. Working from the center outward, symmetrically arrange the sliced beets in concentric circles and place thin half-moons of onion over the beets, following the concentric design. Just before serving, pour the vinaigrette evenly over the salad and garnish with thyme and sliced habanero.
To make the vinaigrette:
Mash the garlic with the salt and spice rub. Add vinegar, mixing thoroughly with a whisk or fork. Whisk in the olive oil, a little at a time, until thoroughly mixed. Stir again just before using.
Serves 4 -6
DRY SPICE RUB
If you have visited marketplaces in Yucatan, you have seen colorful mounds of different spice pastes in many shades from black or green to yellow or red, for home cooks to buy in small quantities. These are the famous regional recados, complex and intensely flavored mixtures of herbs and spices. At home, people dilute the concentrated recado with water or bitter orange juice, and skillfully blend it with the other ingredients of a sauce or marinade. Sometimes, of course they make up a particular recado from scratch and store it for future use instead of buying the paste. Or they grind dry spice-herb mixtures to use as rubs, or to convert into recados by diluting and blending them with roasted garlic and/or onion just before cooking a dish.
Living in New York, I have no access to Yucatecan market-sellers’ wares, and I seldom have reason to make up recados for my own purposes. However, I do rely constantly on the dry spice mixtures, which last a long time when stored in a sealed container. They are a blessing to anyone looking for an extra dimension of flavor in a simple, quick-cooking fish, chicken, or meat dish. I’m especially fond of this version invented by my good friend and fellow food-writer Peggy Knickerbocker. Take it as a general model and vary the seasonings to your own preference. For instance, you might try fennel seed instead of anise, or substitute allspice for one of the other spices and Mexican oregano for the thyme.
Fresh thyme (or any other herb) will add more vivid flavor, but if you’re using it, I recommend making up a smaller amount and using it at once instead of storing it.
2 tablespoons anise seeds
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 teaspoons black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons dried thyme or preferred combination of dried herbs
For best results, heat a small heavy skillet over medium heat until a drop of water sizzles on contact and carefully toast the anise, coriander, and pepper for about 1 minute or until the aroma is released, shaking the skillet for even heating; let cool briefly. (When I’m in a hurry, I may skip the toasting, but it really does bring out a deeper flavor.) Place all ingredients in a food processor or clean coffee grinder and process just until coarsely ground, with some texture remaining. Store in a small tightly sealed jar in a cool place.
Makes about ½ cup.