When designing the daily menu at Rita in Wellington, New Zealand, chef Kelda Hains says the constraints of sourcing locally and maintaining a tight seasonal focus often leads to her best work. "If I only have a few things to work with, that's when the magic really happens. It's about finding those surprising connections that you might not expect, and often those come at a time of year when the seasons are changing. You might have a little bit of summer produce and a little bit of autumn produce and somehow they intersect in a way that you hadn't thought of before." So if you happen to visit in April for example, in the fleeting week or two when chestnuts cross over with red peppers, you'll be treated to a delicious moment in time that won't come back around for another year.
Hains owns Rita with Paul Schrader – the pair also co-own Wellington institution Nikau Café and share a love of unfussy food and service. Each night they offer a three-course menu, a format Hains has admired on her travels, "I've always loved that way of eating. There's something really wonderful about those tiny restaurants in Europe where there's just a few choices, a few wines and one waiter and one cook."
On their website, you can see what was served the night before, but you won't find out what you are having until you are seated at one of the cork tables in the long, narrow cottage. Hains says she is inspired by the domestic sphere, time-honoured recipes that have been refined over decades and centuries, such as nectarine and blueberry pie with fig-leaf ice-cream, custard squares and the glut of summer produce that gets pickled and preserved to brighten her dishes come winter.
"Goat's cheese and beetroot is an absolute classic combination," says Hains about her recipe below. "Although it's almost a cliché, there's nothing wrong with it. To balance the sweetness, use a soft, lightly salted goat's curd and be bold with the seasoning, horseradish and acid so it doesn't eat like a dessert."
- 250 gm blackberries
- 2 tbps apple cider vinegar
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- ¼ bunch tarragon, leaves picked, finely chopped, plus extra to serve
- 125 ml (½ cup) extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra, to drizzle
- 6 small beetroot (600gm), trimmed, with 3cm stem attached
- 125 ml (½ cup) red wine
- 200 gm fresh goat's cheese, crumbled
- 2 tsp finely grated fresh horseradish
- 2 red witlof, trimmed and leaves separated
- Handful mixed micro herbs, to serve
- 1Reserve 12 blackberries. To make dressing, place remaining berries in a bowl with vinegar and sugar. Add half the tarragon and mash with a fork. Set aside for 1 hour. Strain mixture through a fine sieve placed over a bowl, pressing lightly, to yield a syrupy liquid. Add 2 tbsp oil, season to taste and stir to combine.
- 2Preheat oven to 160ºC. Reserve two beetroot and place remaining four in a small ovenproof dish with a lid. Add 60ml water, red wine and 2 tbsp oil; season to taste and toss to combine. Bake until tender (45 minutes). Remove beetroot from the dish, cool slightly, then peel and cut into quarters. Transfer to a bowl and pour over the roasting liquor and season to taste.
- 3Combine goat's cheese and horseradish in a bowl, season to taste and cover and set aside.
- 4Peel reserved beetroot, then thinly slice using a mandolin and place in a large bowl. Add witlof with remaining tarragon and remaining oil; season to taste and toss to combine.
- 5Halve reserved blackberries; divide goat's cheese mixture evenly among plates and spread over base. Arrange cooked beetroot over cheese, scatter with blackberries, raw beetroot, witlof, tarragon and mixed micro herbs, and drizzle with dressing.
ill or mint can be substituted for tarragon. Prepared horseradish can be substituted for fresh. To veer away from this salad eating like a dessert, be bold with seasoning, acid, herbs and horseradish.