This month, Tom Norrington-Davies takes the beet route. If anyone can persuade you that beetroot recipes are beautiful recipes, then he can.
There was a time when I couldn’t stand beetroot. I loathed the stuff. In 1985, when The Smiths released the LP Meat is Murder, several of my classmates (myself included) became militant vegetarians overnight and demanded that the school canteen pander to our new diet. The dinner ladies cleverly responded by giving us salad, limp and bloodied with pickled beetroot, every day until we caved in and found a less masochistic way to rebel.
Back then, if someone told me that one day I’d be beseeching the readers of delicious. to consider the splendour of a beetroot salad, I’d have howled like Morrissey with derision. Still, here we are! It is a vegetable made for eating cold, although I’ve yet to be converted to the raw ‘chips’ of it you find in some pre-prepared salads.
It is pre-preparation that has so beleaguered the reputation of a very tasty root. If, like me, you have suffered at the hands of pickled beetroot then do as I do now and avoid buying it in jars and vacuum packs. The subtle taste is easily overpowered by vinegar, which is a shame because sharpness, used judiciously, is a friend of this vegetable. Instead, temper the natural sweetness of fresh beetroot with a hint of balsamic or sherry vinegar and you will rediscover a brilliant but misunderstood combination.
Another widely held misunderstanding of beetroot is that it is a wintry vegetable. This is to do with its association with countries like Russia. The very word borscht conjures up images of steaming, austere bowls of broth, but in fact borscht is a catch-all name and the famous soup can be warm and comforting or (served chilled) light and summery.
Although you will find beetroot all year round, it is at its best right now. This is the time to seek it out sold in bunches, with a profusion of dark green ‘tops’. If you didn’t know it already, the tops put beetroot firmly in ‘two veg for the price of one’ territory. At this time of year the size of the roots can vary from the diminutive and sweet ‘baby’ type to those the size and hue of a cricket ball. Larger beetroot is still sweet but less obviously so, with an almost wood-smoked note to its flavour.
Sadly, many retailers take little care with the leaves or remove the tops altogether. Should that be the case and you still want to try beetroot with greens from one of the recipes in this feature, you can pair it with young spinach or the ‘ruby’ variety of Swiss chard. Prepare either of these leaves in the same way as the beet tops.
How to prepare roast beetroot
I tend to roast beetroot because I think it’s the best way to bring out the flavour. This applies to both the root and the tops. Besides being the easiest and tastiest way to cook this vegetable, the phrase ‘roast beetroot’ sounds about 10 times sexier than ‘boiled beetroot’, don’t you think?
- Preheat the oven to 180°C/fan160°C/gas 4. If your beetroot comes with the tops, cut them off, leaving a modest crown of about 2.5cm of stalk left on the root. Wash the roots gently so that you remove any soil on the skins, but don’t scrub them in case you break the outer membrane. When you roast beetroot the skin will wrinkle and it can be gently pushed off the flesh with your fingers later. The smaller the beetroot, the easier this is.
- Toss the roots in a couple of tablespoons of oil and a scattering of salt. Lay them in a roasting tray and seal it tightly with tin foil. Bake for 1-2 hours. Check them after 1 hour with a skewer or fork. If you meet no resistance in the centre, they are ready.
- Cool, covered, for 10 minutes before removing the foil, as this will help the skin loosen. Once cooled, you can peel the beetroot. If you don’t plan to use them straight away, leave the skin on. Sometimes you see them sold this way at market stalls.
- Barbecue fans: note that you can bake beetroot in the embers like potatoes. This will enhance its natural smokiness. Just wrap individual beetroots in foil and put them in the hottest part of the fire.