Mouths to Feed: Coming Round Again

Roundness is associated with sweetness, scientists have discovered. In a 2017 experiment, round chocolates were perceived to be 30 percent sweeter than angular chocolates by test subjects. Likewise, blushing pink and red foods are perceived as sweeter than black foods, and shiny foods appear to taste sweeter than rough-surfaced foods. 

So strong are these associations, moreover, that they spill over into the environment in which something is consumed. Popcorn in a red bowl seems sweeter than popcorn in a white bowl. And experiment subjects wearing virtual-reality glasses reported that a beverage tasted significantly sweeter in a virtual environment with “sweet” qualities. 

“That’s bizarre,” says my husband, Peter, when I tell him this. 

Which was exactly my reaction, until I stopped to think about it for a few minutes and realized that we all already know this intuitively. Since roughly forever, Mother Nature has packaged her sweetest treats in rosy globes and globules: apples, cherries, raspberries, strawberries, plums and peaches, to name a few. 

But what use is Mother Nature’s intuitive wisdom in the face of the $1.77 trillion Americans spent on food and drink in 2019? Marketers need data, and researchers are happy to mine it. 

I unearthed the above information (there are vast mountains of it out there, by the way) while looking for something else, of course. In The Kitchen Diaries, Nigel Slater calls mid-March “the bottom of the cook’s year,” adding, after a trip to the grocer’s, “I cannot remember a day when I felt so uninspired.” 

I know the feeling well. There’s a big lag between “spring is in the air,” and “spring is in the vegetable garden.” Things take time to grow. But it occurred to me that if the adage that we eat with our eyes as well as our palates is true, maybe the cure is simply to broaden our appetites. Could pretty foods cure the March blahs? I went off Googling for the link between vision and taste.

Along the way, I was reminded that we eat with our noses, ears and sense of touch, as well. Eating has always been a profoundly multisensory experience. So when winter produce feels like old news and hearty stews and roasts no longer offer comfort, perhaps the cure is to gobble up the swelling sunlight and devour the lovely trills and peeps of the birds getting busy in the mud-scented yard as you sit down to lunch. 

Or maybe cook up something stunning, like this beet and orange salad. It seems just right for this paradoxical turn of the year, when our various senses seem to be inhabiting different latitudes. It’s got earth and sunshine; root, fruit and tender leaf. And while its flavor and colors are bright and vibrant, its main ingredients are perfectly at home in winter. 

Beets and oranges also happen to be rosy globes, small reminders of life’s ongoing sweetness while we wait for our big, globe-shaped home to turn us fully toward spring.

Beet and Orange Salad With Mint

Beet and Orange Salad With Mint

  • 2 bunches small beets
  • Salt and pepper
  • ¼ cup olive oil, plus more for roasting beets
  • 4 oranges 
  • 1 teaspoon shallot, very thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • ½ cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves (from 3 to 4 sprigs)

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Scrub and trim the beets, leaving about ½ inch of the stems attached. Place them in a Dutch oven or roasting pan. Toss with a little olive oil, salt and pepper and add a splash of water to the bottom of the pan. Cover tightly (with foil if you are using a roasting pan), transfer to the oven and roast about 45 minutes or until tender when pierced with a knife. Remove the lid or foil (carefully) and allow beets to cool. Rub or peel off the skins, cut off the tops and slice into wedges.

2. Meanwhile, supreme the oranges: Using a sharp knife, cut off the top and bottom. Stand an orange on one end and cut downward between skin and flesh along the curve of the fruit, removing skin, white pith and membrane. Then, holding the orange over a bowl to catch juices, cut out each segment, slicing inward along the membrane and twisting to release the segment. Set the segments aside. Squeeze any juices from the rind into the bowl, then measure out ¼ cup juice. (For a visual guide, see this previous column.)

3. In a large bowl, combine the sliced shallot, lemon juice, reserved orange juice and ½ teaspoon salt and a few grindings of black pepper. Set aside to marinate 5 to 10 minutes. Whisk in the remaining ¼ cup olive oil. Taste and adjust for salt and acidity. Add the beet wedges to the bowl with the vinaigrette and toss well; taste for seasoning. 

4. Thinly slice the mint leaves. Place half the marinated beets on a platter. Add half the orange segments and mint. Repeat with the remaining beets, oranges and mint. Serve with remaining vinaigrette on the side.  

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