I’m a chocoholic. And like anyone with a sweet tooth, Valentine’s Day brings up thoughts of candy. But I’m trying to cook and eat healthier foods. So I present this Elegant Beet Fennel Salad as a substitute. It makes a perfect centerpiece for a healthy dinner, whether just for two of you, for a family, or for a small party.
In its original version, my friend Sonia called it Jewel Box Salad and you can see why.
The ingredients are simple. Yet several are not common in our salads, and when presented together they make an elegant combination.
Tips for Making Elegant Beet Fennel Salad
- Make the components ahead of time. You can cut and bake the beet slices/pieces ahead of time, cut the fennel, make the dressing, roast the pistachios (if you’re doing that), and wash and prep the lettuce and radicchio all ahead of time. Be gentle as you wash, dry, and tear the lettuce and radicchio. You want the “underlying” salad to be large enough pieces to be elegant, but not so large as to be unwieldy to eat. Keep all those ingredients refrigerated except for the nuts. Then all you have to do when serving is the assemble the salad.
- Knowing your ingredients. Beets come in many colors. In most cases, I only find red ones, but occasionally I can source yellow or rainbow beets. Any of them work in this salad. And if you’re lucky enough to get beets with greens, don’t throw out of the tops. Instead, make this soup. Raw fennel tastes a bit like licorice. Slicing it thinly means you get a hint of that taste without it overwhelming the salad or your palate.
- Substitutions. This salad has infinite variations. The trick is using a colorful combination of lettuce and other leafy vegetables, dressing them first, then layering the colorful, jewel-like add-ons on top. If you can’t find or don’t want to use Bibb lettuce, substitute another type, or use a combination of boxed baby romaine, cut up endive, and baby spinach. If you don’t like fennel or can’t find it, how about thinly sliced pieces of a tart apple (soaking the slices in lemon juice mixed with water to prevent discoloration)? Although I love pomegranate seeds, after the season for the fruit ends, it’s difficult to find pomegranates. But you can substitute plump dried cranberries and the salad retains its jewel-like quality. The dressing contains seasoned rice vinegar. If you want to substitute unseasoned, just add a bit of sugar and a tad more salt to your dressing.
This salad is a template. Vary it as you wish, keeping in mind that prominently featuring red on Valentine’s Day is always a winner. And I almost forgot, if it’s important to you, this salad is vegan.
Elegant Beet Fennel Salad
A simple salad that has all the elegance of a restaurant without the hassle of going out. For two or a group. Lots of make-ahead options too.
- 3-4 beets (depending on size) See note about the size of beet & fennel slices/pieces.
- 1 large head of Bibb lettuce
- 6-8 or more leaves radicchio
- 1/2 bulb fennel, very thinly sliced or cut in half and thinly sliced See note about size and method of cutting fennel.
- 1 pomegranate, seeded
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup seasoned rice vinegar See note about substituting unseasoned
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon maple syrup
- 1/2 teaspoon salt, preferably kosher + 1-2 pinches, divided
- 3-4 grinds fresh black pepper
- 1/2 cup shelled pistachio nuts, roasted or unroasted (see note about roasting)
- 2 tablespoons parsley, minced
Preheat oven to 400°F/200°C. Peel the beets, trim their tops and bottoms and either thinly slice or cut into small pieces. In a medium bowl, toss the beet slices/pieces with 1-2 tablespoons olive oil and 1-2 pinches of salt.
Lay the beet slices/pieces out in a single layer and bake for 15-20 minutes until you can easily pierce them with a fork. Let the beets cool down to room temperature.
Gently rinse, dry and tear the lettuce leaves and radicchio. You can do this by hand or with a salad spinner. In either case, be gentle. If using a salad spinner, you may need to do a final pat-down with a (clean) cloth or paper towel.
Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl, measuring cup, or jar.
Stir, whisk, or shake vigorously before using.
Set nuts and minced parsley aside for topping the salad. See note about roasting nuts
Add the lettuce, radicchio, and a few tablespoons of dressing to a large bowl, and mix them well. (Reserve the rest of the dressing for serving on the side or for a different salad, later.) Then transfer them to a serving plate.
Top with the beets, fennel, and pomegranate seeds. Garnish with parsley and nuts.
If you get your Bibb lettuce in a plastic container like I did, it may contain 2 small heads. I consider that equivalent to 1 large head.
Beets stain. Make sure you use a cutting board from which you can wash out the stain. And don’t be surprised if your hands get stained too!
I like my pieces of beet and fennel to be bite-sized. The original recipe specified beet wedges and slices cut from the 1/2 fennel. I prefer my pieces smaller, so I cut my medium-large beets in half, then quarters before slicing and the same with fennel. If you have a mandoline and like to use it, feel free to slice the fennel with that equipment. I hand slice mine, as thin as I can.
I like the aroma and taste of roasted nuts. To save on washing, I simply waited til the beets were done, lowered the heat to 350°F/180°C, put the pistachios on the same sheet pan and roasted them for about 6 minutes, turning them halfway through.
This recipe is adapted from The Jewel Box Salad published by Sonia in the February 2024 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.