Lessons from the woods

Roasted Beet and Heirloom Tomato Salad

By Marcia Pilgeram
Reader Food Columnist

I’m back from my annual family retreat in Montana. Prior to this year’s trip came a caveat from Ryanne, the spokesdaughter of my bossy children.  “Mom,” she admonished, “this year we’d like to spend the week with our mother, not Marcia the caterer. Will you join us, please?” Ouch. It’s true that my culinary adventures can take on a life their own, so with a lot of give and take, I relinquished a good third of the mealtime duties to no one in particular.  I still purchased the week’s food, though it nearly gave me a panic attack to place boxes of macaroni and cheese and giant parcels of cereal into my cart.

By the second day, I realized that my gang meant business, and I left the kitchen duties behind for a long walk in the forest with all the girls of our clan. We crawled under barbed wire fences and over muddy marshes to explore all the woods had to offer. We gathered rocks and moss for gardens and flowers for pressing. I endured and answered questions about my youth and offered unsolicited life advice.  We returned to the cabins for a lunch of sandwiches and store-bought cookies, and I not only survived, I found myself looking forward to more adventures. With no lunch to prepare, I had dinner prep done before our extended Helena clan showed up for dinner and had some time on my hands to actually sit down and visit over cocktails.

Since I can remember, our celebrations have included handmade mints from the Parrot Confectionary in Helena, a gift from Aunt Grace. My oldest granddaughter, Jaidyn, covets these creamy fondant mints, so with another kitchen-free day on my itinerary, we girls headed to town to buy Jaidyn her very own supply. The Parrot, as their tag line declares, “speaks for itself.” Nothing much there has changed since my first visit more than 50 years ago. You can seat yourself in one of the worn and initial carved booths or spin at the counter while waiting for a cherry or Mexican lime phosphate. The chocolates are still hand-dipped in house, and the jukebox still spins classic 45s. Jaidyn can’t believe it’s exactly as it was when I was her age, and she also can’t believe I never brought her there before. Neither can I.

The following day my son was adamant that pancakes were his specialty, and turns out he was right. He was so at home with my oversized pancake griddle that I sent it home with him.

I had plenty of time in the kitchen, but I had even more time with the grandkids. We spent a day fishing on the lake at our old ranch. I discovered that my kids are happier to pack me up, along with a basket full of sandwiches, than leaving me behind to prepare a dinner for their return.  Hearing the little ones squeal while each caught their limit was a memory that will linger longer than any culinary masterpiece I could have prepared that evening.

I’m not saying it was easy to see two dozen doughnuts replace my homemade scones, but the kids preferred me out of the kitchen and in the thick of the day’s activities, which revolved around little more than watching the little boys set live-traps for critters, real and imaginary.

A week without internet or phone service gave me some much needed time for reflection, especially about something that I’ve put off for years: preparing my will. I’ve had the discussion with several friends, and for many of us, the thought of writing a last will and testament is so daunting that avoiding the discussion and paperwork is just easier. Not knowing when all three of my kids would be together again, I wanted to spend some time hearing their thoughts and getting some input. But one evening, long after dinner, sitting in that old cabin and listening to my children discuss their careers and futures, the perfect plan became crystal clear. They all have two feet firmly planted and level heads to ensure fiscal responsibility. But will they always have or make time for one another once I am not around?

I’m sure attorneys have heard of crazier trusts than the one I am now drafting. Granted, it needs some fine-tuning, but all of my assets will go into a family trust for the sole purpose of an annual vacation for my children and grandchildren. I’d like to think of it really as a gift of time. And I hope my own children will heed their own advice when their children remind them to get out of the kitchen and into the woods.

There were still plenty of home-cooked meals that included fresh-caught brown trout fish tacos, macaroni and shrimp salad, homemade dill pickles and warm blueberry/rhubarb cobbler. But Ryanne and I agreed that our favorite meal might have been a simple homemade Rueben sandwich, washed down with a cold beer while we stole an hour, tucked away behind a cabin, just the two of us.

I am learning a lot from these kids of mine, and no doubt more life lessons will emerge if I let them. Last night’s lesson was turning the kitchen over, unsupervised, to my youngest daughter, Casey. I’m grateful I did because her roasted beet and heirloom tomato salad is going to be a standard at my table. I think you’ll like it too.


Roasted Beet and Heirloom Tomato Salad

This salad is especially pretty using red, yellow and orange tomatoes and red and golden beets. Nice side with grilled salmon or lamb.

This salad is especially pretty using red, yellow and orange tomatoes and red and golden beets. Nice side with grilled salmon or lamb.

•6 medium red beets, trimmed, halved lengthwise
• 2 tbs extra virgin olive oil
• 1 tsp fresh chopped rosemary
• ½  teaspoon coarse sea salt
• 4 -6 ripe heirloom tomatoes, quartered (about 2 lb.)
• ½  lemon, juiced
• ¼  teaspoon pepper
• ½  cup small mint leaf, minced


•Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
•Toss beets in bowl with olive oil and rosemary.
•Place beets, cut sides up, on parchment-lined, rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle with ¼ teaspoons salt. Cover with foil and bake until tender, about 35 minutes.
•Remove foil and roast another 15 minutes. (Beets can be prepared and chilled overnight).
•Arrange beets and tomatoes on a serving platter. Drizzle with oil and lemon juice, and season with remaining ¼ teaspoons salt and pepper.
•Scatter mint over top, garnish with lemon wedges and mint springs.


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