The Romans knew a thing or two. They ate only the leaves of beet (beetroot) plants not the beets themselves. Ever tried them? While I wouldn’t be keen to give up beets, I have to admit that they were on to it when it came to the leaves – they’re nutritious, tender and delicious, with a mild nutty taste and hint of pungency. It’s worth growing your own just for the leaves!
Fresh beetroot do not come laced with sweat-inducing vinegar – that’s the canned variety – they come stacked with sugar. In Europe, most of the sugar used comes from beets, not from cane, and although the beetroot varieties we grow here would not be suitable for turning into sugar, they’re still pretty sweet in their natural state. Mostly, we don’t want overly sweet vegetables, so some form of sharpness, such as lemon or lime, or some type of vinegar – and it could be cider vinegar, sherry or wine vinegar, even balsamic vinegar – yoghurt, sour cream or crème fraiche, is always going to be welcome to temper the sweetness. Certain acidic vegetables such as tomatoes and fruits like apples also dilute the sweetness. Beetroot responds to a hot jab, too, such as that from horseradish and mustard. And they like warm earthy spices such as allspice, cloves, fennel and cumin and herbs like dill, fennel, tarragon, thyme and bay leaves.
Apart from soup – and there are myriad variations on the Eastern European specialty borsch – beetroot can be gently boiled, steamed, baked and roasted, served hot or cold, eaten cooked, or raw, grated, finely diced or julienned for salads. For something different, try raw beetroot cut into fine julienne (thin matchstick shapes), or cut into thin discs, deep-fried and served as vegetable crisps.
What to look for
Look for freshly-pulled beetroot, free of dry scaly patches around the leaf crown which indicates mature beets. They should feel heavy for their size and hard, and if buying beetroot for the leaves, these should be pert and glossy. Store beetroot and leaves in the vegetable crisper, loosely wrapped in a plastic bag.
Preparation and cooking
When preparing beetroot, wear disposable gloves to stop hands getting stained. If you forget, rub your hands with salt and lemon juice, then rinse in soapy water. The leaves can be trimmed off before cooking, but not the crown, or the beetroot will bleed all its red juices into the water as it cooks (this can be of use if making a beetroot soup). Likewise, do not trim the tapering root until the beetroot is cooked. Medium sized and large beetroot can take up to, or more than, one hour to cook. Put them in a large saucepan, cover generously with cold water and salt lightly. Bring to the boil and cook gently until tender when pierced with a skewer. Do not overcook beetroot, especially when making beetroot soup, because the lovely crimson colour will change to an unappealing rust colour. Cool the cooked beetroot briefly, then wrinkle the skin a little and it should peel off easily. Peeling the beetroot under water will stop unnecessary splatters all over the walls! Beetroot is best dressed while still warm because it will absorb more of the flavour. Beetroot can be cooked 2-3 days before required. Store them in a covered container in the refrigerator.
To cook beetroot in the microwave
Pierce them first in several places with a skewer to prevent them bursting and making a huge purple mess as they cook! Put 2-3 beetroot in a deep bowl with 2 tablespoons of water and cover the bowl loosely with microwavable food wrap. Microwave for about 10 minutes, turning the beetroot once during cooking. They are done when a skewer can easily penetrate them. Cool before peeling.
Don’t waste the leaves
The Romans only ate the leaves of beetroot plants. They knew that young beetroot leaves are nutritious, tender and delicious, with a mild nutty taste and hint of pungency – it’s worth growing your own just for this! Wash leaves well and dry them, and if tiny use whole. Otherwise, chop coarsely, discarding any tough stems. Add them to salads with mixed leaves, or with fruits such as sliced oranges. Or make a health-filled salad with baby salad leaves, beetroot leaves, chopped herbs, sprouts and nuts. The leaves can also be cooked. Blanch them briefly in lightly salted water, drain well, return to a cleaned pan with a small knob of butter, or a splash of extra virgin olive oil and a little crushed garlic. Reheat, tossing them in the pan, and serve hot. Or add them to soups, or stir-fry them in a hot wok with a little peanut oil.
Eat your purples
There is a lot of talk about ‘eating your coloureds’ which means you need to eat more than just greens. Red beetroot has very good antioxidant properties, being high in phenolics (there are golden varieties which are not such a rich source; regular beetroot falls into the ‘purple’ colour spectrum). Beetroot also contain plenty of folate, and some potassium and manganese, and plenty of fibre. The leaves are a good source of calcium, iron and beta-carotene. Quite simply, we need to eat more of them.
- Make a beetroot and orange salad with cooked beetroot and sliced juicy oranges and dress with a lime and extra virgin olive oil vinaigrette. Scatter with torn flat-leaf parsley before serving.
- Bake whole beetroot in foil as described above and when cool dress with plain yoghurt flavoured with grainy mustard. Serve with a roast of pork or beef.
- Make a salad with baby beetroot leaves, torn cos lettuce leaves, orange segments and salted almonds, and dress with a lemon vinaigrette.
- Toss cooked baby beetroot with creamed horseradish and serve with roast beef.
- Grate raw beetroot and make a salad with grated carrot, chopped spring onions, roasted peanuts, chives and lemon juice.
- Make a salad with sliced beetroot, strew with rocket leaves, drizzle with lemon-infused olive oil and top with crumbled feta cheese.
|Baby Beetroot with Cream and Chives|
|Roasted beetroot salad with goat’s cheese & mint & ginger dressing
My friend Tessa made a gorgeous beet salad for her husband Roger’s birthday recently. She used witloof, radicchio and goat’s cheese, and baby beets and baby potatoes freshly dug from her garden. The greens were dressed with a vinaigrette, then she drizzled the lot with honey. It was scrumptious! Here’s a similar version spiced up with a little bit of ginger and using baby beet leaves.