Fennel seed’s licoricelike flavor complements the candy-sweet young beets you can find at the farmers’ market in late spring and early summer. To capture the flavor, I crush the seeds in a mortar, then heat them gently in olive oil just until they impart their fragrance. The strained oil makes the beets glisten, and the subtle fennel flavor is captivating. For a particularly beautiful salad, try to buy small red and golden beets. Their tops will probably still be attached; if they are perky, you know the beets were just pulled. Save the greens, steam them, and dress them with olive oil and lemon.
- ¾ teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed in a mortar or spice grinder
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1½ pounds small beets, preferably a mix of red and golden (see note)
- 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
- 1 tablespoon thinly sliced fresh chives, optional
Heat fennel seeds and olive oil in a small skillet over low heat until oil is fragrant with fennel, about 5 minutes. Cool, then strain through a sieve.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. If greens are attached, remove all but ½ inch of the stems (so as not to pierce the beets) and reserve for another use. Put beets in a baking dish and add ¼ cup water. Cover tightly with a lid or aluminum foil and bake until a knife slips in easily, 40 to 45 minutes.
Cool slightly, then peel. Cut into quarters or, if very small, in half. Toss with strained oil and sherry vinegar. Season with salt. Transfer to a serving bowl or platter and top, if desired, with chives.