09 December 2017
There are certain ingredients where I adopt a seasonal mission each year to make sure I have them a minimum number of times. Asparagus in the late Spring (and then preferably never again for the rest of the year), morel mushrooms at around the same time, quince in the Autumn. And, right now, believe it or not, it’s beetroot.
Not that it ever used to feature so prominently. Like everyone else, I was brought up with the vinegary pre-cooked stuff that you could just about put up with as a component of your salad when you were a kid, but about which you never felt nostalgic as an adult.
I forget when it was, but one day I had a fresh beetroot. It had been, if I recall correctly, wrapped in tin foil and baked in the oven. No messing about whatsoever. And it was a revelation. Rich and earthy, such a huge surprise against a backdrop of low expectations.
So in recent years, a couple of helpings of fresh beetroot must come at the time of year when they’re local and fresh out of the ground. I’ve even had a couple of feeble stabs at growing some myself - but the birds seem as partial to the young shoots as I am to the grown bulbs, and I was never persistent enough to remember this before giving it a go, which would motivate me to cover the early crop to protect it. Next year. Definitely.
Some people wax lyrical about the health benefits of beetroot. The greens are rich in calcium, iron, and vitamin A and C. The beets themselves are sources of folic acid, fibre, manganese and potassium. Which sounds pretty good, even when you don’t know what each of those elements actually do for you. What’s more, apparently beetroot fibre increases the number of white blood cells, and beetroots are in the top ten of most potent antioxidant vegetables.
I should probably care, but I pay remarkably little attention to such statements. My general approach is to eat a good variety of fresh food, wholesomely prepared - with more of it coming from plants than from other sources. No big-deal superfoods that you eat disproportionately to everything else. No miracle cures. And - thankfully, in my case for now - no specific things to avoid.
No, my fondness for beetroot comes from fantastic texture and flavour, and of course the slightly over-assertive impact on the colour of whatever you’re eating. It’s all good, so long as you’re a little careful in the preparation not to get it all over your clothes.
It’s not rocket science. Look for firm vegetables with un-damaged skin. Avoid the larger ones - they can be a bit on the tough side. Smaller, more tender beets are the way to go. If you can, get the ones with leaves still attached. It’s a sign that they’re fresh, and the greens are very nutritious in their own right. You can keep the beets for a while - maybe a couple of weeks in the fridge - but I can tell you now that they’ll never last that long in my house.
It used to be that the only beetroots you would ever see would be a proud purple throughout. But now we have the food renaissance going on, you may find some older varieties for sale that mix it up - concentric purple and white rings, or golden yellow beets. If you think you’re buying it for the health benefits though, you’ll probably want to stick to the purple stuff because it has more of the cancer-fighting compounds. I’m not sure I would trust in any anti-cancer regime that relied on the efficacy of beetroots, mind.
Roast or boil it whole. That way you keep all the juices and the flavour on the inside. One of my favourite recipes with the young, small beets is to deep fry them whole in a beer batter. That’s a bit of a faff, though. If you just want them on the plate as a robust accompaniment to something, then just cook until you can slide a knife easily into the vegetable. When cooked, leave it to cool a little and then rub off the skin with your hands.
In terms of flavour combinations, it likes tangy cheeses, like goats cheese or blue cheese. It is often eaten with cold meats, and it can stand up and be counted in the face of something like horseradish.