Spring in Ontario is always a mixed bag of tricks. One day the weather will be gorgeous and balmy as everyone hesitantly creeps outside in tee-shirts and flips to enjoy that first touch of almost forgotten sunshine. Then the next day we have snow. Not great for tourism, true, but considering that the only thing Canadians love more than Tim Hortons is complaining about the weather, this is pretty much par for course.
I love the spring time, in all of its tempestuous glory. I eagerly creep through the garden each day to see what new green sprouts have been brave enough to rear their perennial heads when there is still a chance of frost, and I make short work of those precious first fresh herbs to grow each year; mint, parsley and chives. Their verdant freshness is exciting to a palette that grew stodgy with winter stews and slow cooked meats, and the bright, clear flavours are a compelling reason to look forward to the coming months.
The first mint in our garden was used this year for a light apple and beet salad. Two great things that go great together, apples and beets are a glorious combination that just makes sense. My typical apple and beet salad is set off with an astringent and dilly vinaigrette. This version is different – lighter and almost floral with the exotic fragrance of cracked coriander seed, sweetly complex maple syrup and that gorgeous coolness of fresh mint. The ingredient list is short and simple, but don’t underestimate the power of a few key ingredients to make a healthy dish like this sing.
Apple and Beet Salad with Maple, Coriander and Mint
Serves 6-8 as a side dish
- 2 lb beets
- 1 lb honey crisp apples (1.5 large)
- 1/4 cup pure maple syrup *
- 1.5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1.5 tbsp white wine vinegar
- 1 tbsp whole coriander seeds **
- 4-5 sprigs fresh mint (1/4 cup chopped)
- salt, to taste
* It goes without saying that this is no time to substitute pancake syrup for the real thing. I am fussy enough about my maple syrup, finding that even the certified Canadian processed maple syrup is tasting suspiciously like Aunt Jemima’s these days. As a rule of thumb, I have started to go by cost. If it costs less than $15 for a small bottle…..well, you know the rest. If that’s all you have, use it. However, if you have a nice, nutty, rich tasting amber maple syrup on hand, don’t waste it all on your pancakes.
** Fresh coriander seeds really do make a world of difference to this dish. If all that you have is ground coriander, consider adding a small splash (1/2 tsp) of rose water to the vinaigrette to echo the floral scent and flavor of the freshly cracked toasted seeds.
Preheat the oven to 350ºF.
Wash the beets but don’t dry them. Wrap the beets up tightly in a tin foil pouch and place on a baking sheet to roast. The time that it takes to cook the beets will vary according to their age and size. For small, wee baby sugar beets that are very fresh, it may only take 30 minutes for them to be tender. For older, tougher, big ol’ Mama beets, 60-75 minutes may be required. Use your judgement and roast the beets until they are fork tender.
It is also worth noting that I always imagine it will somehow be easier to peel the beets after they are roasted, rather than before. It is not. If you’re peeling the beets before they go in the oven, use a vegetable peeler and wear gloves. If you’re peeling them after they’re cooked, you can use the dull side of a spoon to scrape and slide the skins off. Oh, and if it isn’t obvious, you should still wear gloves. I have had to hang my head in shame too many times, looking like I work part time in a lipstick factory. Don’t let that happen to you.
While the beets roast, whisk together the maple syrup, olive oil and white wine vinegar. Season lightly with salt, to taste.
Toast the coriander seeds in a dry skillet set over medium heat. In only a minute or two, the seeds should start to turn golden and pop, which is your cue that they are done.
Put the toasted coriander seeds into a mortar and pestle and pound them into a coarse powder.
When the beets are tender, set them aside until they are cool enough to handle. If they aren’t already peeled, do so now before dicing them into bite sized pieces.
Core the apples and slice each into 8 wedges, then slice each wedge cross wise into bite sized chunks that are somewhat smaller than the beets.
Toss the apples and beets with the dressing and check the seasoning; adjust the salt if you feel the yen.
Sprinkle the crushed coriander seed on top of the mix, reserving just a teaspoon for garnish. Coarsely chop the mint leaves and add these to the bowl before tossing together well until everything is combined.
Serve the beet and apple salad chilled or at room temperature, garnished with that last sprinkle of coriander on top and a sprig or two of fresh mint.
This is the kind of virtuous salad that just makes you feel better when you eat it, as if your blood is pumping purer and your eyes are shining brighter by the minute. Perfect on the side of grilled chicken, pork or a meaty white fish, if you don’t like beets because they taste “like dirt” (you people know who you are!), this might be a turnaround dish for you. Really. Give beets another chance. They want to be your friend too.