Beetroot is much misunderstood and underused in the average British kitchen. If you’ve only tasted it in the form of crinkle-cut pickled slices, you’re missing out because its earthy and distinctive but still delicate flavour has so much to offer, not only in terms of flavour but also colour and texture. It can be used fresh, baked in cakes or even juiced.
Where does beetroot come from?
A cultivated form of wild seabeet, beetroot as we know it now appeared in the 1500s. It has become a key component of Eastern European and Russian cooking and is popular too in Scandinavia. An easy vegetable to grow at home, variations on the basic plant include spinach, samphire, sugar beet and chard. While most people are familiar with the purply red variety, it’s worth giving white or golden beets a try.
Look for smooth, firm roots no larger than 6cm in diameter for maximum tenderness and to avoid woody, tough centres. Apart from the root, beet leaves can also be eaten and are best while fresh and crisp. Limp leaves are fine however if you are only buying beetroot for the roots.
Store the roots with the leaves removed in a plastic bag in the fridge – they will last a couple of weeks as long as they are good and fresh when you buy them.
Try grating tender young roots in salad but more mature roots should be cooked. Smaller, fresher roots are usually boiled but you can wrap larger, older roots in foil and bake for excellent results.
Two of the key features of this plant are its colour and nutritional value, which are best preserved by cleaning the roots and cooking them with the skin on. Depending upon size, boiling time varies from 30-120 minutes or 1.5-2.5 hours in the oven – the roots are cooked when a skewer can be easily inserted. The juice can stain skin so consider wearing a pair of gloves while handling beets.
Make thyme roasted beets to go with game and roast meats: to serve four-six, preheat the oven to 200C and cut about a kilo of boiled and skinned roots into chunks. Spread over a roasting tray and drizzle with olive oil, salt and freshly ground black pepper, then cook for about 30 minutes, turning occasionally. Sprinkle over about a tablespoon or fresh thyme leaves and cook for another 15 minutes. Serve topped with a generous knob of butter.