One of my Christmas gifts this year was Lidia Bastianich’s new cookbook, “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine”. This is a great addition to my library of Italian cookbooks, with a comprehensive overview of ingredients and techniques. Of course, I couldn’t wait to try it out, and post-holiday I gravitate to lighter fare. The first recipe I tried is Insalata di Barbabietola con Mele e Formaggio di Capra, a beet salad, using both the beet root as well as beet green, apple and goat cheese. The one area I find this cookbook lacking, however, is sharing the diverse nature of Italian cuisine. Italian cuisine is presented as a unified entity rather than an intriguing collection of regional cuisines, each expressing the unique history and culture of a region. On more than one occasion I have overheard a restaurant owner in Italy inform a diner that their request for pesto or grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese cannot be accommodated – “we don’t serve that here”. All passionate Italian chefs believe their home region’s cuisine is, of course, the best!
This recipe, if I had to attribute it to an area in Italy, combines products native to the Northern regions. The picturesque town of Bassano del Grappa is a frequent stop on our Bike the Wine Roads tours in Italy. Close to the Prosecco hills, Breganze wine zone, as well as the lovely Valsugana bike path and the challenging Monte Grappa, Bassano offers some amazing culinary specialties as well. It is best known for its prized white asparagus, but Bassano has also given us beets. Here in the US, we find a variety of beet called the Chioggia beet, with its distinctive white and rose rings. Supposedly this varietal arrived in the US from Italy in the mid-1800s, and were originally called Barbabietola di Bassano (beets of Bassano).
Northeast Italy produces a wide array of apples, from Val Venosta in Alto Adige, Val di Non in Trentino, and also the Veneto and Friuli. But these regions don’t produce much goat cheese – there are many wonderful cheeses here, but made from the milk of cows that flourish in the alpine pastures of these regions. Moving east into Lombardy and then Piedmont, you will find more sheep and goats than cows, especially at lower elevations, and this is reflected in the cheeses – here you will find goat cheese, ewe cheese, and cheeses that combine the milk of two or more. Piedmont is one of the premiere cheese producing regions in Italy, with goat milk cheeses such as Robiola, Caprino di Rimella, and Caprino Ossolano. So a salad such as this would likely have a cow milk cheese in Trentino or the Veneto, and a goat cheese when served in Piedmont.
Insalata di Barbabietola con Mele e Formaggio di Capra
(Adapted from Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine, by Lidia Bastianich)
10 or 12 small yellow and red beets with greens attached (about 3 pounds total)
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons good quality balsamic vinegar
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1 medium tart crisp apple
4 ounces or so slightly aged goat cheese
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Remove the beet greens, leaving about an inch of stem on the beets. Wrap the beets in aluminum foil, drizzling with a bit of olive oil before sealing them up in the foil. Roast until tender when poked with a knife, about 45 minutes to an hour. Remove from oven and let cool.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Rinse the greens and trim off any very tough parts of the stems or blemishes on the leaves. Trim the softer stems, and keep separate from the leaves. Cut the stems into 1 inch pieces. Roughly chop the leaves. Add the stems to the boiling water and cook 5 minutes. Add the leaves and cook until tender, about 5 more minutes. Drain well, rinse with cold water to halt the cooking. Squeeze to remove excess water, place into a large bowl.
Peel the beets and cut into wedges. Add to the greens in the bowl. Cut the apple into matchstick size pieces, leaving the peel on. Add to the beets and greens.
In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil and vinegar, and season with salt and pepper. Toss the dressing with the beets, apples and greens. Spread on a serving platter and top with the goat cheese.