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Beet Wheat Berry Salad

(post, Amy Halloran)

Once upon a time I had a job that kept me more out of the house than in, and gave me money to explore prepared foods.  A restaurant named Plenty -- this was in Seattle in the early nineties -- made a wheat berry salad that was red and crunchy and supremely delicious.

I loved this salad and considered its $7.50 a pound price tag a luxury I earned by spending long hours sifting through piles of other people's stuff.  I ran a thrift store.  When that job ended, my attachment to this regal foodstuff did not, and I quizzed the counter help, who were also the kitchen help at the tiny establishment, on the ingredients.  From what they admitted, and my own nibbling investigations, I came up with this recipe and have been making it, or its kissing cousin, for fifteen years.  

The formula is quite variable, and I make it with whatever grain I have on hand, be it rye berry, wheat berry, quinoa, or brown rice.  Seasonally, the crunchy vegetable ranges from fennel bulb to celery.  Dried fruits have been currants or raisins instead of apricots, and the nuts have been pistachios.  During high, hot summer I might peel and grate the beets rather than cook them.  If I am cooking the beets, steam-roasting them in a foil covered pan at high heat turns the root into a gem.  

In honor of this contest, I decided to return to my original inspiration for this recipe and work out some measurements.  I have guess-timated a recipe before, for my Community Gardens newsletter; I make a vat of this for their fundraising brunch each year.  I was too rushed at the time they requested a recipe to make a batch and do calculations, but this time, I made it a family project, using my son and husband as notetakers and taste-testers.  They have the more eloquent tastebuds in the family, and can best discern which way a flavor should travel.  More salt.  More nuts.  More sour.  Had they been with me when I relished my take out boxes of ruby nuggets, this recipe would be a better approximation of what I enjoyed.  But we love this and inhale a double batch within a few days.