Beet and Corn Panzanella

Know what that is?

It’s a beet panzanella.  And it’s now officially one of my new favorite reasons to love summertime.

A while back, some friends on Facebook (where else?) were talking about recipes, and somebody mentioned a beet and corn salad.  At the time, I had to pause and ponder such a creation.  Beets, good…corn, good (though not my favorite vegetable by any means)…beets and corn together?  I wasn’t sure this marriage would be a successful one.  But after some contemplation, I thought that maybe the earthiness of the beets, with their sort of blooming sweetness, would pair pretty well with the sharper, fresher pops of sweet corn flavor.  When I wrote to my friends that I was intrigued by the salad, I received the response: “You would LOVE this thing.  It’s just beets, corn, and basil.”

They officially sold me with the basil.  You could throw fresh basil on just about anything and I’d at least try it.  And when, as a bonus, somebody mentioned that the original impetus for the dish was a Martha Stewart recipe…I figured it couldn’t be ALL bad, right? 

But as tasty as a beet and corn salad with basil sounded, it also sounded like something that might respond well to some tinkering.  Could I make it a main dish, I wondered?  A light vegetarian dinner is always welcome in the hot summer months, and since we’re really trying to reduce our meat consumption, I’m forever seeking ways to make creative vegetarian meals that will satisfy J. and the boys.  Luckily, beets are one of the most liked items in our household right now, which is pretty amusing if you consider that 1) J. thought he HATED beets until about a year ago, when I started insisting on serving them more than once every six months; and 2) I doubt there are large mobs of 4-year-old children out there who can sincerely declare the beet their favorite vegetable, and who’d rather eat beets than strawberries.  But beets are, indeed, L.’s favorite vegetable, and since he still doesn’t like strawberries (or most fruits, for that matter), he’d much rather take down a plate of beets for dinner than, say, a fruit salad.  (He reminded me of this fact pretty vehemently tonight as he watched me slice strawberries for our fruit platter.)

For P.’s part…well, okay, he’s in full-on veggie aversion mode, but he’s 2.  It’ll pass.  And he eats beets if I make them into chips, so I suppose you could say he DOES in fact like them.  The fact remains, though, that a main dish centering on beets seemed like a good enough way to make a light vegetarian supper that wouldn’t engender too many complaints from the family.  Since I didn’t want to fool too mightily with the original, beautifully simple concept, I decided to make a panzanella; not only would the cubes of bread be non-competitive with the vegetables in their flavor, but in my experience, if you want kids to be excited about eating a new vegetarian dish, bread never hurts.
I can now amend that statement to read: If you want kids to be excited about eating a new vegetarian dish, HOT PINK bread never hurts.  Predictably, after tossing the slices of roasted beets with fresh basil, corn, and the sourdough croutons to coat everything with vinaigrette, there was a stunning pink hue to both the bread and the corn kernels.  The lively color was absolutely irresistible to L. and P.  Although P. didn’t eat much — just a few bits of bread, some cheese, and fruit — he was absolutely entranced by the look of it and kept examining the bread and licking it in an effort to get the pink color off of it.  L., on the other hand, cheerfully devoured his portion, minus some of the corn (it’s not his favorite either) and wanted seconds of beets and croutons.  He even said he might want leftovers in his school lunch so he could show his friends the “cool pink bread salad.”
For our parts, J. and I were thrilled with the outcome of the salad — though I think the addition of a bit of goat cheese atop our portions didn’t hurt J.’s opinion of things.  Three bites or so into dinner, J. said with a tone of some surprise, “This is really tasty.”  He was right.  It was really tasty.  And easy.  And on an 85-degree evening, a little panzanella and fruit is never the wrong answer for dinner.
Beet and Corn Panzanella
Serves 4-6
1 loaf day-old sourdough or other hearty bread, cut into 1-inch cubes (should be about 6 cups of bread cubes)
3 large or 6 small red beets (golden would work as well), roasted and cooled
2 cups cooked corn kernels
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, sliced thinly
3 cloves garlic
Juice of 2 lemons (about 1/3 cup)
2 tablespoons honey
Approximately 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for cooking the beets and croutons
Salt and pepper
Goat cheese (optional)

Begin by roasting the beets — wash them, drizzle with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and wrap tightly in aluminum foil.  Place in a 400 degree oven for about 45 minutes, then remove and allow them to cool in the foil (they’ll continue to cook that way).  (I did this the night before making the salad.)
Once the beets are cooked and cooled, the skins should slip right off.  Peel the beets and slice them thinly; if they’re large, cut the slices in half.  Set the sliced beets aside. 

To make the croutons, preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  On a baking sheet, toss the bread cubes with a drizzle of olive oil, some salt, and pepper.  Bake them in the oven for 15 minutes, or until just golden brown.  While the croutons are toasting, make the vinaigrette.  In a blender (or with an immersion blender, if you prefer), combine the garlic, lemon juice, honey, and some salt and pepper.  With the blender running, stream in the olive oil until the mixture is smooth and emulsified.  You may need slightly more or slightly less oil for your tastes, so stop and taste the dressing at least once during the process to adjust as needed.
Combine the warm bread cubes, beets, corn, and basil in a large bowl.  Pour 1/2 of the dressing over the salad and toss to coat.  Depending on the density and texture of your bread, you may need more dressing.  Taste and add more dressing as needed.  (I used about 2/3 of what was made.)  Serve the salad immediately, topped with crumbled goat cheese if desired.