Who would have imagined that a retired Wasilla policeman would be the one to grow almost 18 heirloom varieties of some of the most flavorful tomatoes in Alaska? Former policeman-turned-farmer John McNeal of Alaska Sweet Water Farm was the last person to envision it, but in summer 2015 he gave us gorgeous tomatoes. This season he added seascape and other strawberry varieties to his gardens.
"Last summer I grew tomatoes people loved. And this year, the strawberries are even better (than the tomatoes)!" he said.
McNeal has a following that arrives early to the Saturday South Anchorage farmers market in order to buy what they can before the strawberries sell out. And they do, quickly. "Within 10 minutes, McNeal says, "they're gone."
I often get there early and buy multiple pints for friends who don't make it in time and for my family, who gorges on them before we even get home.
If there are any left, I like to make this beautiful and simple salad that contrasts earthy roasted beets with the sweet tang of the berry. You can add a handful of your favorite greens and some cheese for a more complete salad. Either way, it's a last nod to summer flavor.
Roasted beet and strawberry salad with pistachio
1 pound beets, preferably combination red and golden
Extra virgin olive oil, pistachio oil or walnut oil, divided
2 green onions, thinly sliced
Zest and juice of 1/2 large orange
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 cup packed whole celery leaves or parsley leaves
1 pint ripe strawberries, sliced
1/4 cup toasted pistachios or walnuts
Optional: feta cheese or burrata
Optional: a handful of Castelvetrano or Niçoise olives
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Trim beets and cut in half, if large; try to cut beets into similar sizes so they will cook evenly. Place beets in aluminum foil and drizzle with olive oil. Wrap tightly and place on a baking sheet and cook 25 to 35 minutes or until tender when pierced with a fork. Unwrap and let sit on counter until cool enough to handle. Peel beets, discarding trimmings and skin. (Note: it's best to use food-safe gloves to avoid staining your hands while peeling).
Slice beets and place in a large serving bowl. Top with green onions. Whisk together zest and juice of orange, about 2 tablespoons olive oil and mustard. Season with salt and pepper. Taste and add more olive oil, salt or pepper, as needed. Pour mixture over beets and toss gently to combine. Add celery leaves and strawberries; toss gently to combine with beets. Top with nuts and cheese, if using, just before serving; garnish, if desired, with olives.