Kitchen-garden diary: in praise of beetroot

Ameer Kotecha
·4-min read
Photo credit: Natalia Yanez-Stiel
Photo credit: Natalia Yanez-Stiel

From Town & Country

Beetroot is a dangerous thing. If you don’t take precautions, you’ll end up with a ruined chopping board, a suspicious shirt and Lady Macbeth hands. But stick with it and you’ll be rewarded with a deep, earthy flavour and, of course, vivid colour. The vegetable comes in a range of hues: pinks, sunny yellows and, most commonly, dark magenta; the Chioggia variety even has beautiful pink candy-stripes. A beetroot is used as much for this vibrancy as for its flavour; we eat with our eyes, after all. Thinly sliced with a mandoline and dressed, then arranged on a large plate like carpaccio and topped with crumbled goat’s cheese, it makes for a very pretty plate. A traditional Pennsylvania Dutch dish, for instance, is prepared by refrigerating hard-boiled eggs in the liquid left over from pickling beets and allowing the eggs to marinate until they turn a deep pink-red; meanwhile, the Hairy Bikers make beetroot into a pink risotto.

Some cultures and cuisines have taken to beetroot with more enthusiasm than others. The northern and eastern Europeans use it best, combining it with horseradish to make burachky in Poland, seasoning it with salt and vinegar in Serbia to make the winter salad cvekla, mashing it into a labskaus in northern Germany and, in Ukraine and elsewhere, turning it into the sour soup borscht. In Britain, it has been eaten somewhat less (perhaps we were put off after some of our ancestors were struck by mangel-wurzel disease during World War I on account of having to survive on nothing but beets…?)

To cook beetroot, try roasting it until sweet and sticky to serve alongside meat as a fresher alternative to redcurrant jelly (leave the skin on while it’s in the oven, then simply rub gently with your thumb and it will come off without needing to peel). Alternatively, try blending it in a soup – though beware, when boiled for a long time, its colour will turn a less-appetising brownish tone. A trick from Russian kitchens for capturing the glorious colour is to make a beetroot stock: grate a large, uncooked beetroot straight into a pan so that you waste none of the precious juices. Pour over boiling water or stock and three tablespoons of wine vinegar, bring slowly to the boil, then remove from the heat and leave to infuse for half an hour. Ensure whatever soup you have made is piping hot so that no further heating is necessary, then strain this stock into it just before serving.

This veg is also made for pickling. There are a hundred ways you might do so, but a classic recipe uses black pepper, cloves, coriander seeds, mace and bay leaves to make a pickling vinegar. Enjoy it with cold meats, or take your cue from Tom Kerridge, who uses it to cut through an oily fish such as mackerel to create a good-value and impressive dinner-party starter.

There are other inventive uses. Grated beetroot adds moisture and flavour to a salad, reducing the need for a calorific dressing, while a modest amount paired with carrot and apple makes a smashing fresh juice. As with carrot and courgette, it is increasingly popular as a moistener in cakes – Mary Berry makes one with beetroot and chocolate – and you can use its natural sweetness in desserts such a brownies, halva or even a tarte tatin. Or why not treat it as a fruit, for example to make a compote?

What we usually eat is, as the name suggests, the root of the beet plant, with its tapering mouse-tail ends and bulbous shape. But look for beets with plenty of the stalks and leaves still attached; they spoil quickly, so their healthy-looking presence is a good sign of the veg’s freshness. What’s more, while the leaves may bear an uneasy resemblance to the poisonous ones found in rhubarb plants, they are not to be thrown away. Trim them off and store separately to keep them at their best and then use as you would rainbow chard: wilted in a pan with olive oil and garlic, or even shredded raw in a slaw.

Beets are brilliant and deserve to be better used. Just remember to wear an apron.