Sweet Beet Salad with Pickled Onions

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We are now back from our most recent trip home with a little more good cheer and a bit less room in our waistbands. While it may not have been the most relaxing vacation, it was certainly a very enjoyable one, full of great food and familiar faces.

Warning: I went a little crazy with the food photos whilst at home, so there will be an abundance of luscious food imagery in this post. Bear with me.

The trip happened to fall on two O’Regan birthdays, plus an early birthday celebration for two Barbers, which meant that I got to bake more cakes in one week than in the entire rest of the year. The first one was for Dad’s birthday, just a couple days after we had arrived back in Santa Cruz. Despite my not-so-subtle hints that I would like to make an ice cream cake, Dad chose a chocolate cake with coffee-vanilla frosting. Since I have been deprived of cake decoration for so long, I decided to frost that cake in the most complex way I know how. The ruffles took me longer than anticipated, mainly because my hand kept getting close to cramping up after each line. In the end, though, it was worth it. My parents cooked a feast that night, with BBQ pork ribs, asparagus, and a few other veggie dishes. Surprisingly, everyone had room for cake afterward.

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Mom and I, being the crazy kitchen dwellers that we are, clashed a bit over the next few days during dinner prep. On dishes that we both know how to make (such as the beet recipe below), there is a bit of a power struggle. If I am in charge of a dish I will do it the way I want, much to her chagrin. “Ugh, no, those need to cook at LEAST ten minutes longer,” Mom said when I was just about to drain some lentils. Unfortunately for her, I learned how to cook (and act) from her, and so I drained the lentils anyway. The night before, I had told her that she had to make the ice cream with the ratio of milk to cream that I had discovered, to which she replied, “Hmm.” I then told her that I was the Master and therefore she should really listen to me which, as you might quess, sent Kitchen Dawn into a fit of indignation that only such a claim can result in. In the end, both of our dishes turned out wonderfully, and the retorts we exchanged before become a laughing matter. Sorry (and not sorry), Mom, but I am what you made me!

Kitty was surprisingly comfortable at the O’Regan house, and became progressively bolder as the days wore on. She touched noses with Pip (who was so very patient with the new, chubby cat running around his house), she jumped on tables and couches, and even chased Khaleesi down the hallway. She also took to eating all the other pets’ food, so much so that her belly is now as tight as a freshly filled balloon. All in all, she had a grand old time at the “luxury hotel.”

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Later on in the week, I got to make my second cake of the trip, Jonji’s annual lemon-poppyseed cake with strawberries and cream cheese frosting. The cake part, which I constantly experiment with due to its GF nature, turned out a little dry this year. However, the abundance of strawberries and cream cheese frosting negated that problem. For the first time ever, I made a naked cake—a cake without frosting on the sides—only because I actually ran out of frosting. I usually have the opposite problem, but I guess there’s a first time for everything.

The cake was a success, as was the family gathering at Pat and Taz’s that night. Taz also made two kinds of ice cream, both of which were phenomenal. That, plus the tacos we had eaten earlier, rendered Jonji, Pat, and myself (along with a few others) nearly comatose. There was about an hour or so in which the couches were draped with nearly silent, bloated humans. Seeing as I had been having stomach issues the few days previous due to an overabundance of wonderfully rich food, I probably should have seen that one coming. But what’s a little nausea compared to the satisfaction of all that food? Priorities, people.

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During our second weekend home, Jonji and I joined Pat, Taz, and Oakes at a pop-up breakfast at the Westside Farmer’s Market. There, we ate our way through at least six courses, including a potato and egg salad, pork belly with fruit jam, a quiche with a magnificent crust, and a chocolate crepe layer cake with blackberries and toasted hazelnuts. Needless to say, I was once again rendered too full of food for my own good. After that, Jonji and I waddled back to the car and went straight to Bailey’s birthday brunch, at which we tried as hard as we could to eat the still-warm flaky scones my mom had just baked. Such a hard life!

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The final birthday cake I made was a pumpkin cheesecake for Bailey. Despite my best efforts at, for the second time, hinting that I would love to make and eat ice cream cake, I was thwarted once again (“…by Harry Potter.” JK, that was Voldy talking). The cheesecake caused me quite a bit of grief—first of all, I burnt the crust and had to scratch the whole thing and then, after Bailey ran to the store for more ginger cookies, I had to make a new one. I then forgot that I needed more cream cheese, which meant that I had to run to the store in the middle of mixing the batter. I also tried to make caramel hearts on top of the cake, which turned out to look more like leaf-blobs. Fortunately, the cake turned out as lovely and delicious as ever.

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On our last night in town, my family and a few Barbers went to the UCSC field for a picnic. For the first hour or so, we enduring the lightest rainfall I’ve ever been in, and enjoyed the view of the bay. We gobbled down kale salad and chicken, just in case it started to rain in ernest. Oakes took advantage of the open space and ran all around, playing baseball and showing us all an exceptionally brave gopher. Despite the rain, the weather was quite warm and almost muggy, such that by the time we hiked down to the cars in the dark I was still just carrying my jacket. It was a splendid way to end the trip.

So it was that Jonji and I, with Kitty nestled in her carrier in the backseat, made our way home on Wednesday morning with full bellies and, if you’ll forgive my momentary cheesiness, hearts. Clearly, I overindulged during the trip. But if you think you could resist, then you’ve never eaten at my parent’s house. My mom’s food, combined with her insistence on eating as much as humanly possible (most often offered with an egg on top), is pretty dang hard to deny. I challenge you not to overeat during a week at the O’Regan house. The prize is pride at defeating the ever-generous Smaug.

Some people love beets, and some hate them. I was never a fan of beets, with their dirt-like flavor, until I tried this salad. Nestled among crunchy onions and salty feta, these beets taste almost like candy.

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Sweet Beet Salad with Pickled Onions
serves 4

1/4 large red onion, very thinly sliced
3 tbsp champagne vinegar
pinch of salt

2 bunches small–medium beets, red or golden (or both)

2–3 tbsp olive oil
1/4 tsp honey
1/4 tsp dijon mustard
pinch of salt

1/3 cup feta (or more, to taste)
3 tbsp parsley, finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Toss the thinly sliced red onion with the champagne vinegar and salt. Set aside and let soak for at least 20 minutes.

Trim the beet stems off, leaving an inch still attached to each beet. Cut off any long roots as well. If any of the beets are larger than your fist, slice in half. Place all beets in a glass baking dish (don’t crowd them too much). Pour enough water into the dish to come about 1/2 to 1 inch up the side of the dish. Cover the dish with a lid, if you have one, or with tin foil. Bake in the oven for 40 minutes, or until the beets are easily pricked with a fork.* Let cool.

Once the beets are cool enough to handle, cut off the tops and bottoms. Remove the skin by sliding your thumb along the beet until the skin pulls up, then pull or rub the rest of the skin off (it should come off pretty easily). Slice each skinned beet into quarters, or roughly bite-sized wedges. Place in a bowl or serving platter.

To making the dressing, whisk together the olive oil, honey, mustard, pinch of salt, and the vinegar from the onions.

Lightly toss the beets with the pickled onions, dressing, chopped parsley, and 2/3 of the feta. Top with the remaining feta and serve.

*If you have tiny beets, check after 30 minutes. If you have large beets, plan on baking them longer than 40 minutes.

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