Jared Cook’s salad of crab, citrus and salt-roasted beets may well be the very best seafood salad I’ve ever devoured. Cook, the executive chef-partner at the new Laguna Hills hotspot, Ironwood, knows how to weave vibrant, well-balanced flavors with contrasting crunch and alluring surprises. Such as the unexpected flavor bling of a garnish of paper-thin sliced striped baby beets that have been quick-pickled in seasoned rice vinegar. They are drained and placed atop the salad along with pale green celery leaves and toasted hazelnuts.
Yes, the crab is super-fresh, subtly sweet and tender. Yes, the beets are roasted in a bed of kosher salt and pickling spices to give them an inviting allspice-bay-coriander perfume. And yes, peeled sections of grapefruit as well as two orange varieties add fragrance and a lively acidic counterpoint.
But it’s the scrumptious vinaigrette that puts the dish over-the-moon delicious. A welcome hint of smokiness gives a depth of flavor to the dressing; it comes from the juice of grill-charred citrus halves- lemons and oranges. Lightly caramelized shallots and honey add sweetness. Low-acid vinegars and a blend of canola oil and extra-virgin olive oil team up to make a concoction that would taste tempting drizzled on everything from asparagus to chicken to zucchini. In this salad, it is the thread that weaves irresistibility.
I was delighted when Cook volunteered to show me how to prepare the salad for a video shot in my home kitchen. Along the way, I discovered strategies for home cooks to use to make this dish doable in a staff-free kitchen. Much of the preparation can be done a day or two in advance: beets roasted and refrigerated; dressing prepared and refrigerated, citrus halves charred and refrigerated, while other citrus can be cut into segments and refrigerated.
Cook lives in Lake Forest with his wife Kacie and two-year-old daughter Audrey.
Jared Cook’s Favorite Knife: He favors his handmade Japanese ironwood-handled Nenox chef knife. The ironwood composition relates to the restaurant’s name, plus he loves the weight and feel of that handle. (He’d better keep an eye on that blade; the knife sells online for 725 bucks.)
His Secret Talent: Darts. Russ Bendel, his partner at Ironwood (Laguna Hills) and Vine Restaurant (San Clemente), says that he is really skilled at it. Bendel plays darts at Cook’s home in his “caveman” garage and says that he has only managed to beat Cook one time. Cook disputes that victory.
The Undisclosed Julia: He has a large colorful tattoo of Julia Child on his forearm. Julia is depicted hefting a large salmon and grinning from ear to ear. Lovely.
A typical breakfast: Two eggs over easy, an English muffin and black coffee. However, he says that his favorite “all-time gut bomb” breakfast is chicken fried steak with sausage gravy and biscuits.
Ironwood, 25250 La Paz Road, Laguna Hills; 949-446-8772, ironwoodlaguna hills.com
Ironwood’s Jumbo Crab Salad with Salt-Roasted Beets
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
2 raw baby (small) striped beets (also called candy cane beets or Chioggia), peeled
1/4 cup seasoned rice vinegar
For roasting: 4 cups kosher salt
For roasted: 1 tablespoon pickling spice
3 fresh large red beets, stems removed
3 fresh medium golden beets, stems removed
1/2 cup Charred Lemon Dressing (recipe makes about 1 cup – refrigerate leftover dressing): 2 lemons, 1 orange, canola oil for brushing and sautéing, 1/2 large shallot (sliced), 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard, 2 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar, 1 tablespoon Champagne vinegar, 2 tablespoons honey, 1/2 cup canola oil, 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, kosher salt and ground black pepper to taste
8 ounces jumbo lump blue crab or Dungeness crab meat if available
4 ounces lump blue crab meat or Dungeness crab leg meat
2 large shallots, finely diced
2 tablespoons drained capers
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives
1 ripe (but not squishy) Hass avocado, cut in half, pitted, diced
2 red (Ruby) grapefruit, peeled, cut into peeled sections, see cook’s notes
3 Navel or Cara Cara oranges, peeled, cut into peeled sections, see cook’s notes
2 Blood oranges, peeled, cut into peeled sections, see cook’s notes
Garnish: celery leaves, as many as you like
Garnish: 1/2 cup toasted hazelnuts (filberts), coarsely chopped
Cook’s notes: To make peeled citrus segments (“supremes”), cut top and bottom off citrus, making those two cuts parallel to each other and cutting just below white pith. Place cut-side down on work surface. Cut off peel and pith in strips about 1-inch wide, starting at the top of the fruit and cutting down (following contour of shape). Working over bowl to collect juice, use a sharp small knife to cut parallel to one section’s membrane, cut to center, then cut on opposite side of segment and let it drop into the bowl. Repeat until all sections are removed and cut from their membranes. (Watch video to see up-close how this is done.)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut striped beets crosswise into very thin slices (a mandoline works well for this). Place in bowl with seasoned rice vinegar to marinate about 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, place 4 cups kosher salt in small roasting pan (big enough to hold beets without touching) and sprinkle with pickling spice. Place whole, unpeeled beets on salt; push them down just enough to rest in salt without rolling around. Cover with aluminum foil. Bake in preheated oven until just fork tender, about 1 hour – but sometimes it can be more, sometimes less. Remove foil; allow to cool enough to handle (but still warm). Peel rubbing with paper towel or kitchen towel that you don’t care about staining (be sure to do the yellow ones first – if you start with red beets, you will end up with an undesired tie-die effect). Once peeled, refrigerate to chill.
- Prepare dressing: To char citrus, brush 2 halved lemons and 1 halved orange with canola oil and season with salt and pepper on cut side. Place cut-side down on hot (clean and oiled) barbecue grill. Grill until charred (blackened). Heat 1 tablespoon canola oil in small skillet on medium-high heat; add shallot and cook until lightly browned. Transfer shallot to blender; juice the warm (but not hot) citrus juice into blender. Add mustard, vinegars, honey; whirl until smooth. With motor running, add oils in a thin stream. Taste and add salt and/or pepper as needed.
- Cut beets into rustic wedges or large dice. Arrange beets on serving platter. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Using about 2 tablespoons of dressing, drizzle beets with 3 or 4 streaks of dressing.
- In a stainless steel or ceramic bowl, gently mix crab meats, avocado, chives, capers, shallots and peeled citrus sections. Season with a little salt and pepper. Add just enough dressing to lightly coat; gently toss. Pile on platter. Garnish with drained striped beet slices, celery leaves and toasted hazelnuts.
Source: Jared Cook, executive chef, Ironwood, Laguna Hills
Photos by Curt Norris
Cathy Thomas is an award-winning food writer and is the author of three cookbooks: “50 Best Plants on the Planet,” “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce,” and “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce.”