I used to remember almost everything we had eaten in restaurants, especially when on vacation. No longer: If I don’t keep notes or ask for a copy of the menu, I often forget most of a meal as quickly as I digest it, though the mere name of a dish will suffice to trigger a more complete recollection. What’s more, with few exceptions, I can no longer summon up the finer details of those years-past dinners, either. I guess there have just been too many.
The exceptions are rarely complete meals; they’re mostly single dishes, and not necessarily the ones that are the most ostentatiously memorable. For instance, decades ago — maybe in the late 1970s or early 1980s — Jackie and I ate at a Paris restaurant called La Ferme Saint Simon, then owned by the chef Francis Vandenhende and his television-personality wife, Denise Fabre; it still stands in the seventh arrondissement, but is now under different management. It has also grown fancier than it was when we visited.
I remember nothing about the meal except the snack brought before our first courses — thinly sliced beets briefly sauteed in butter and finished with sherry vinegar. This was a new one on me: I’d never heard of stir-frying beets without first boiling or roasting them, and I don’t believe I’d ever run into sherry vinegar, either. The beets tasted earthy and sweet and tart and salty, with everything softened by the butter. I don’t remember whether there were any herbs. Maybe parsley, maybe nothing.
Staring at a bunch of farmers market beets on our kitchen counter the other day, that dish came to mind, and I thought how good it would be as an accompaniment to fish, where a bit of acidity is always welcome. In this case the fish was skate, and I breaded and pan-fried it in manageable pieces. Just about any flavorful fish, and any simple preparation, would work. Mackerel, bluefish, sardines: These would be particularly good.
I peeled and rinsed my bunch of beets (net weight after peeling, 12 ounces), cut them into slices less than a 1/4-inch thick, then into matchsticks (you could use a mandoline or food processor, of course). The Paris original boasted thin slices, but that was just a few mouthfuls, and I felt that matchsticks would be easier to eat as a side dish.
Now I heated a 10-inch skillet over fairly high heat, added less than a tablespoon of butter and then the julienned beets and some salt and pepper. I stir-fried the beets for about 3 minutes — they were still crisp — and added two tablespoons of sherry vinegar, continuing to stir and making sure not to inhale the initial burst of fumes. When the vinegar, butter and beet juices were reduced to a glaze — this took no time — the beets no longer tasted raw but were still crunchy. Off the heat, I added chopped parsley and checked for seasoning. The vinegar had created the need for more salt.
Just like my Paris memory: earthy, vinegary, sweet (from the beets themselves), great with the fish — and hard to stop eating.