There are not many surprises in a domestic kitchen when you've spent several decades cooking the same thing over and over. This one, however, astonished and delighted me: if you roast small par-cooked beetroot that are still attached to thumb-length leaf stalks, those stalks will dry out over an hour or so into lovely, sweet twigs with a most satisfying crunch.
Here, I've combined the crackly-topped beetroot with warm slices of rosy duck, some dark salad leaves and a scattering of dried cranberries to make a winter salad of great simplicity.
Duck breasts are eye-wateringly expensive, so I don't often buy them, but this recipe won't ruin your budget because you can stretch just two breasts between four people.
I never boil beetroot because I don't like the way all the ruby-red goodness leaches into the water, but I have to admit that I'm often infuriated at how long it takes to roast even small beetroot to a state of tender, sweet and slightly shrunken deliciousness.
When I was making this salad, I took a shortcut and blasted them in the microwave oven before roasting them. I've never tried this before, but it worked very well, and it slashed the roasting time by at least an hour. (Thank you to my friends Mark and Julie Stevenson for showing me their method!)
You could make a complicated dressing, perhaps with some spicy or citrussy or sweet element (such as pomegranate syrup) to drizzle over this salad, but I think a spritz of lemon juice and a lick of grassy olive oil is all that is needed to bring out the earthy, metallic flavours of duck, rocket, watercress, spinach and beetroot.
Dried cranberries are available at most supermarkets and health shops; this is also good with a mixture of dried cherries and goji berries.
Warm Duck Salad with Crackly-Topped Beetroot
8 young beetroot, leaves still attached
extra-virgin olive oil, for sprinkling and dressing
flaky sea salt and milled black pepper
2 large boneless duck breasts, skin on
mixed dark salad leaves - rocket, watercress and baby spinach (enough for four people)
1/3 cup (80 ml) soft dried cranberries
6 spring onions, white and pale green parts only, finely sliced
a large lemon
Heat the oven to 190 ºC and switch on the fan. Trim off the leafy tops of the beetroot, leaving stalks 6 cm long attached to each one. Place them in a small ovenproof dish and cover loosely with clingfilm. Microwave the beetroot on high for 12 minutes. Drain off any liquid, drizzle with two or three tablespoons of olive oil and season generously with salt and milled black pepper. Toss well so everything is coated.
Roast the beetroot, uncovered, for 45 to 60 minutes, or until they are very tender and somewhat shrunken, and the stalks are crisp.
Drain off most of the fat (keep it for roasting potatoes!), turn up the heat under the pan to medium high and fry the duck breasts skin-side down for another 4-5 minutes, or until the skin is very crisp and golden. Flip the breasts over in the pan, turn down the heat a little and fry them for another 4-6 minutes, or until they are cooked, but still slightly rosy in the middle. Don't be afraid to cut a sneaky slit into the thickest part of the breast to check for doneness - you will lose a little juice this way, but this is a lesser evil than tough, overdone duck.
Remove the breasts from the heat, put them on a plate, cover them loosely with tin foil and let them rest for five minutes.
Make a bed of salad leaves on a large platter. Cut the duck into slices and slice the beetroot in half lengthways. Arrange the duck slices and beetroot on top of the greens and scatter with the dried cranberries and spring onion slices
Squeeze the lemon over the salad and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Season the salad with salt and milled black pepper, to taste, and serve immediately.