“The beet is the melancholy vegetable, the one most willing to suffer. You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip” – Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume
So here’s a Thursday factoid for you. The biggest beetroot ever grown weighed 71kg. It was grown by a man in the Netherlands in 2005. This beetroot therefore weighed just slightly more than Tom Cruise (so the internet tells me. I haven’t weighed him myself recently). Now, I know he is relatively short for a gentlemen but still. This is a vegetable we are talking about. Cultivating movie star size beetroot, speaking better English than most British people and reclaiming most of their country from below sea level: THOSE DUTCH ARE EXTRAORDINARY PEOPLE.
Until fairly recently, beetroot was something of a frumpy vegetable that struggled in the popularity stakes outside Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Russia. Now though, beetroot is experiencing its Kale Moment – UK sales have increased by 20% in the last four years – presumably owing to its having been granted superfood status by whoever it is that decides these things. Tesco sales of beetroot juice have risen by 50% in one year and in the UK we apparently collectively spent £43m on beetroot last year.
I was definitely not buying £43m worth in years gone by as I really didn’t have the first clue what to do with it, besides eat the pickled stuff. It always looked like a bit of hassle to do anything with the actual fresh thing itself. And I didn’t even know you could eat the leaves until about six months ago. But now? I live on them (beetroot, not just the leaves). The child adores them (obviously – they are bright purple and pretty sweet). It’s a win win. Plus they keep pretty well which is a rarity among summer vegetables so you can stick them in your weekly shop and not worry if you don’t get to them straightaway. I cook a batch up at least once a week when they are in season. I am not particularly imaginative with them, as you will see, but they’ve gone from being the weird thing in the vegetable box that languished quietly until being binned to getting a regular billing.
The standard red/purple varieties are the most common, ranging in size from the small summer crop (about the size of a golf-ball) to the more mature specimens (tennis ball size). Increasingly though, many hybrid varieties are available, which are less pigmented than the traditional purple and don’t bleed all over your hands, kitchen and the lovely white dairy product or pale piece of fennel you’ve served them with. Hybrid varieties tend to be picked when they are smaller and come in golden, pink, white and the really beautiful pink and white two tone Italian heritage variety Chioggia.
The flavour depends slightly on size and variety but all share that sweet, earthy flavour that is quite unique to the beetroot. Rather disappointingly, the Chiogga turns pink when cooked so these are best to use for raw dishes if you want to preserve the beautiful two tone concentric circle, which you do. (Just FYI – concentric is one my favourite words in the English language. True story).
The UK beetroot season runs from early summer through to February/March but as the mature ones store well they are available into the spring after the crop has started to bolt. Summer is the time to get the small tender ones with no woody core though (look for ones up to about 6cm diameter). These smaller ones cook quickly too – the larger ones take the best part of an hour to cook (vs 20 minutes for small ones) making them less of a quick after-work dinner option.
They should be firm with a smooth, undamaged surface and deeply coloured. The leaves are edible (they are related to and very similar to chard and spinach) but if you want to use the leaves they should be brilliant green, not too long and look very sprightly. As soon as they start to yellow or wilt they must be introduced to the bin. Do not worry though if the leaves aren’t good enough to eat – this doesn’t mean that the root bulb isn’t still OK (the leaves just deteriorate much more quickly than the root once picked, particularly in hot weather – the root actually keeps pretty well).
When storing cut off the leaves unless you are planning to eat the whole lot (root and leaves) in the next 24 hours. If you leave them on, they draw moisture away from the bulb. Store in an unsealed plastic bag in the fridge. The leaves should be used within a day or two but the root will keep for up to two weeks.
The Health Bit:
Did you not read that bit about it being a superfood? Beetroot has been used medicinally since Roman times and they contain a unique group of antioxidants called betacyanins. These are believed to support the liver, improve circulation, lower blood pressure and strengthen the heart. The are anti-inflammatory and aid digestion.
Beetroot Cooking & Eating Tips:
Beetroot’s odd combination of a high sugar content and damp mud earthiness (it tastes like a bit like dirt, there’s no getting away from it) means it pairs best with things that are acidic and sour or salty (or both), hence the enduring popularity of pickled beetroot. In her book Vegetable Literacy Deborah Madison describes the acidity of citrus or vinegar as forming a bridge between the sweet and earthy elements and uniting them in a way that makes them likeable. That is quite poetic but a very good way of putting it I think.
- Raw: beetroot is very good grated or finely sliced and made into a slaw with a mustardy dressing. Whether you need to peel it or not will depend on how old it is and how tough the skin is. I don’t bother peeling young beetroot if they are going to be grated or sliced very finely and generally find the skins on the golden and other hybrid varieties thin enough to eat. Larger, older ones will need peeling though. If you want some raw beetroot inspiration look no further than Nigel Slater’s beetroot and fennel slaw that has graced these very pages before.
- Cooking: you can steam, boil or roast it – in each case always leave the skin on and 2-3 cm of the leaves and the root tail intact otherwise they will their purple colour (and all their nutrients) leach out during cooking.
- Steaming and boiling is quickest but I always roast mine. I toss in olive oil, thyme, garlic and salt and pepper, sometimes with a big glug of balsamic vinegar, pop into a small roasting dish, cover with foil and roast at 180C for 20-60 mins depending on size. I think they taste better than when steamed/boiled and have the opportunity to take on the flavours of the garlic and herbs.
- Once cooked, the skins can be rubbed off easily – best done with a teaspoon or with gloves on if you are doing battle with the purple variety. Again, though, young summer beetroots can be eaten with their skins on. Seasoned with something vinegary (I like sherry vinegar but raspberry – or other fruit – vinegar is excellent too) and some oil (ideally walnut), they make a good accompaniment to roast meat, especially beef with lots of horseradish.
- We don’t eat them warm but rather leave them to cool, stick them in the fridge and then eat them in various salad concoctions (usually bolstered with lentil or spelt or brown rice) or alongside smoked salmon, mackerel or ham over the course of the week.
- Salad Ideas: the following work really brilliantly with beetroot: goats cheese, blue cheese, feta, eggs, walnuts, dill, cured or smoked fish, roasted carrots, pumpkin seeds, watercress, avocado, apple, horseradish. Rye bread or crackers go well too. Dressings that are mustardy, vinegary or made with piquant things like sour cream or creme fraiche are winners. One top tip – even if eating them cold, dress them in your oil and some vinegar combination while they are still warm as they soak up the flavour much better.
- Pickling: Cook your beetroot any which way you like, and leave to cool. For every 500g of beetroot gently heat 200g of sugar with 200ml white wine vinegar and one finely chopped shallot, until the sugar has dissolved and then simmer briskly for 5 minutes. Once the liquid has cooled, add the beetroot and pop the lot into a sterilised jar. It keeps for yonks in the fridge. Or you can make a quick pickle with raw sliced beets like this beautiful technicolor Donna Hay version.
- Eat the leaves: as long as they haven’t start to wilt/turn yellow, you can cook the leaves exactly the same way as would spinach or chard. They are very good thrown into a simple pasta with garlic and chilli.
- Juice them: As Nigel Slater puts it, drinking beetroot juice is like “biting into clean sweet earth” (why Nigel bites his juice – or earth – is best left to him I think) but it’s oddly delicious. It is also an easy one to get past a two year old although be warned that lots of ready made beetroot juices are loaded with ginger – absolutely delicious but a bit of spice shock for a small palate.
Some Brilliant Beetroot Recipes: the resurgence of beetroot means that there has been an explosion of recipes online, in the newspaper supplements and in food magazines so you should be able to find inspiration all over the place. The following, though, are all recipes that have been tried out in my kitchen but which I am far too lazy to type out all over again when I can just give you a link. That’s the beauty of the internet, non?
- I first made this spelt and beetroot salad (pictured above) on a Scandi cooking course that Signe Johansen taught at Leiths last year and it has morphed into the template for many a beetroot based salad in our house. My greengrocer sells little tins of dill pollen but really don’t worry if you can’t get hold of it. I often use cooked puy lentils in place of the spelt, walnuts (because I can’t eat hazelnuts) and throw in whatever we have in the fridge from the salad ideas list above and it still always tastes great. Raspberry vinegar is worth seeking out (not least as you can use it up making Pippa Middleton’s chicken and melon salad too). Goat’s curd is pretty tricky to find, so I often use a mild soft goat’s cheese like the Rosary one from Waitrose in its place. The version we cooked on the course – complete with amazingly pretty edible flowers – is pictured above
- It’s been a while since Gwyneth got a mention, so here is her beetroot and avocado salad with a mustard dressing from It’s All Good, which is also very good with some roasted carrots thrown in (and the colours together look lovely).
- But why make a salad with 5 ingredients when you can have 55? Yes, you guessed it – Ottolenghi’s beetroot, broad bean, chilli and herb salad. A bit more work but very tasty indeed.
- There is a delicious potato and beetroot gratin in one of Gordon Ramsay’s books but I can’t find the exact recipe online. This one from Red magazine is pretty much identical though. One for the winter either alongside a roast or on its own with brown rice. Who doesn’t like a gratin?
- Beetroot crisps are tastier than kale crisps and are a doddle to make. A definite child-pleaser. Get yourself a mandolin and go wild.
- I have made this beetroot and walnut hummus from Hugh F-W loads recently – it’s easy to whizz up in a food processor and keeps really well in the fridge.
- These beetroot, courgette and carrot fritters are perfect for kids as well as grown ups (and are particularly delicious with some harissa yoghurt on the side I am told).
Kitchen Song of the Day: Don’t Leave Me This Way – Thelma Houston (Any Way You Like It)
Got the world’s best beetroot recipe? Grown a beetroot bigger than that Dutch chap? Comments below!