Vegging out: You can't 'beet' meatless Bay Area cooking

WHAT HAVE they done to this poor beet salad?, I wondered.

I had taken a few bites of it before the wrongness dawned on me. Leonard was frowning, too. We stared at our plates.

As a vegetarian, I often count on a restaurant's beet-and-greens salad. They can vary it substantially as long as it includes greens, cooked beets, some sort of interesting cheese and a vinegar-based dressing. Parmigiano, Gorgonzola and Asiago can all fit in. If you have some leftover spinach, lettuce, arugula or the like, you can make it work. And the beets make it so hearty that a beet-based salad can serve as my main course.

But something had gone terribly wrong here. A few green leaves decorated the plate, but most of the roughage came from some tough layers of red cabbage. I winced at its bitterness. Beet juice overwhelmed the tiny clumps of cheese. And the dish tasted as though it had passed out of the kitchen without any seasoning at all.

Now, if you're not a vegetarian, you might think this sort of thing happens every time I go out to eat. Not so! Every continent other than Europe has some culinary tradition that includes plenty of vegetarian dishes. Whenever I visit an Ethiopian, Salvadoran or Indian restaurant, I'm confident that the chefs have a passing familiarity with veg-based main courses.

If the restaurant specializes in U.S. or European cuisine, I just check the menu first to make sure it offers more than one vegetarian entree. You see, if there's just one, it might be a token that no one ever orders. (This especially goes for vegetarian omelets. Diner cooks often forget that sticking raw mushrooms and broccoli in the middle of already-cooked eggs doesn't work.) But if a healthy proportion of the menu is meatless or meat-optional, then I know the restaurateur doesn't just conceive of a meal as "hunk of meat surrounded by little sides of starch and color."

The home of the horrible beet salad tricked my trick. Maybe it was a bad night. I'd ordered two other vegetarian sides in lieu of an entree. Usually that fills me up and scratches my itch for variety. But tonight the creamed spinach lacked seasoning and inherent flavor, and the Asian medley reminded me of cloying takeout from neon-signed Chinese places.

Years ago, I wouldn't have minded. Years ago, when my boyfriend took me to Chez Panisse for the first time to celebrate my birthday, I could barely appreciate it. They only put three ravioli on my plate! They tasted fine, but I couldn't tell what all the fuss was about.

All I'd known was fast food, Mom's Indian cooking and cafeterias. Of course I had no palate. I went back late last year, when I returned to the Bay Area to visit. Our friend Leonard and I could taste layers of flavor in every course, including the tea. I, not Chez Panisse, had changed. Years of great Bay Area eating and Leonard's cooking had taught me what food could be.

The vegetarian palate suffers on the East Coast. I miss year-round fresh produce like you wouldn't believe. But at least you can buy herbs here. My husband reported while working in Little Rock, Ark.: "In California, basil is a vegetable. A big bunch costs $1.79. In Arkansas, basil is an herb. It still costs $1.79, but it comes in a little plastic zip bag containing about 10leaves. Now whenever I buy basil in California I'll feel guilty, like I'm depriving someone else of basil."

Not that the outer Bay is much better. While working on a pledge drive at radio station KUOP Stockton 10 years ago, I was seen scraping a mass of veg-flavored mayonnaise out of a donated sub sandwich. This led another volunteer to laugh, "I never met a vegetarian before who doesn't like vegetables!"

I love vegetables. I just don't like tortured, tasteless vegetables. So treat them well! There's no reason to mess up that old standby, beet salad. Here's my husband's recipe:

1 bag or bunch spinach 4 small or 2 medium beets 4 oz. goat cheese walnuts balsamic vinaigrette

-Put beets in a baking dish and coat lightly with olive oil. Bake at 400 degrees for 30-40 minutes or until tender. Peel, chill, slice.

-Put walnuts in a pan and shake them over stove heat until they start to smell like walnuts.

-Balsamic vinaigrette is a little vinegar, mustard and salt. Whisk in olive oil a little bit at a time, until it's the consistency of something you'd put on a salad.

-Assemble salad: spinach, beet slices, walnuts, cheese, dressing. Makes four salads.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at