On my recent trip to Connecticut, I got really lucky at the MGM Grand at Foxwoods Resort and Casino. No, I didn’t hit it big at the craps table, but I did have the good fortune of dining at Tom Colicchio’s fabulous Craftsteak restaurant there. Even if you’re not familiar with the Crafsteak brand, the name is an obvious tip-off that this is not just any restaurant, but a serious steakhouse. So you’d think this post would be about some very special cut of beef, right? But surprisingly, the dish I can’t get out of my head wasn’t wagyu beef, or any type of steak at all. It was a beet salad. Yeah, beet, with a “t” at the end. Anyone who has been watching Top Chef as long as I have knows that Colicchio loves a good beet salad, so I figured this dish was more than a safe bet.
I wasn’t disappointed. A tumble of orange, red, and pink beets scattered across the dish, atop a smudge of beet puree. Candied walnuts added the expected sweet and nutty element, and creamy, salty blue cheese played off the bright tangy vinaigrette. But what really got me was the candied orange zest. This wasn’t your usual clumsy, chewy jumble of sugared orange peel. Instead, it came in tiny shards that shattered like a potato chip between my teeth, filling my mouth with a burst of pure orange flavor.
I became certifiably obsessed with those crisp shards of zest. Back home, I searched and searched for recipes for this type of crunchy orange zest. I asked chef friends and amateur cooks, neighbors and acquaintances how I might achieve this crispy, crunchy orangey-ness, but to no avail. Finally, I did what any self-respecting food writer would do: I contacted the chef and asked him to please, pretty please, divulge his secret. Happily, I got a prompt reply from Chef de Cuisine James Lynn. Here’s what he told me: “We blanch it first to remove any bitterness, then we lightly poach it in simple syrup. After straining the zest from the syrup we spread it out on a tray and dry it in an oven on the lowest setting possible, you can even let it go overnight with just the pilot light, until it becomes brittle. It will get crunchier as it cools to room temperature.”
It sounded simple enough, but it still took several failed attempts before I finally nailed it. My first discovery was that the zest has to be shaved very thin, using a vegetable peeler and applying very gentle pressure, leaving all of the white pith behind. The second trick was to poach the blanched zest strips very gently in sugar syrup for a full 20 minutes, rather than the 5 to 8 minutes most recipes call for. And the third was to bake the strained zest strips in a just-warm oven (the lowest setting on mine is 170ºF) for an hour before leaving them, in the turn-off oven, overnight. This overnight slumber is when the magic happens; the strips of chewy zest are transformed into brittle crisps of intense orange-y goodness.
Today’s post is a three-for-one! I was just going to give you the Candied Orange Zest recipe, which is totally versatile and could be used anywhere you’d normally use candied zest, but I really love the combo of the orange zest with the roasted beets, blue cheese and candied nuts, so I thought I’d go ahead and give you the whole shebang: Salad, dressing and candied zest topping.
Crisp Candied Orange Zest
2 large navel oranges, scrubbed
½ cup sugar
Using a vegetable peeler, remove the orange zest leaving all of the white pith behind. Cut into strips. Place the zest strips on a saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce heat to medium and simmer 5 minutes. Drain.
In the same saucepan, combine the sugar with ½ cup water and heat to a simmer over medium heat, swirling the pan until the sugar dissolves completely. Add the blanched zest to the sugar syrup and bring back to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low and let simmer very gently until the zest is translucent, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat oven to its lowest setting and cover a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Remove the poached zest from the syrup with a fork and allow the excess syrup to run off. Spread the zest in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet and place in warm oven for 1 hour. After an hour, turn the oven off, but leave the zest inside. Let sit in oven overnight, or as long as 24 hours, until it becomes very brittle.
2 tablespoons champagne vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon honey
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼–1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
Combine vinegar, mustard, honey, salt, and pepper in a small jar or bowl and shake or whisk to combine. Add the olive oil and shake or whisk to combine well.
Beet Salad with Blue Cheese, Crisp Candied Orange Zest, and Champagne Vinaigrette
3 to 5 medium beets (I used a combination of red beets and Chioggas)
4 handfuls microgreens, arugula, or baby spinach
Champagne Vinaigrette (see recipe above)
2 ounces blue cheese, such as Maytag, crumbled
2 tablespoons candied walnuts or pecans
8 to 10 strips Crisp Candied Orange Zest (see recipe), broken into small pieces
Preheat oven to 475ºF.
Wrap the beets in aluminum foil and bake in preheated oven until tender, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool. When cool enough to handle, slip the skins off of the beets and slice them or cut them into wedges.
In a salad bowl, combine the greens with 2 or 3 tablespoons of dressing, tossing to coat well. Add the beets and toss again to coat, adding more dressing as needed. Garnish salad with the blue cheese, candied nuts, and candied orange zest. Serve immediately.