Bountiful beetroot

Boiled, baked; sliced; diced; pickled or raw, beetroot is a great autumn all-rounder.

Beetroot is the perfect addition to complement many dishes and it also has many health benefits, Kitty Scully reports.

THIS summer has blessed us with harvests aplenty and beetroot seems to be more bountiful this year than ever. Deep and ruby red in colour, this member of the Beta Vulgaris family adds a vibrant hue and flavour to a wide range of dishes and bestows lots of health benefits. Not only is beetroot’s boldly bright tap root edible, but so too are its leaves and stem.

All three are tantalisingly tasty, verstatile and are bursting with nutrients, colour and flavour. Lucky for us, fresh unprocessed Irish beetroot is pretty much available all year round.

Traditionally, beetroot’s association with the Irish palate and plate has been in its pickled form. Do crinkle-cut slices steeped in overpowering vinegar sound anyway familiar? Thankfully, we have evolved gastronomically for the better of beetroot and our palates and now its time has come to be appreciated and cooked for its distinctively sweet earthy flavour, as opposed to camouflaging this unique vegetable in acetic condiments.

Beetroot has long been considered medicinally beneficial and it can be recommended as a general tonic. It is said to help cleanse the liver and can assist in lowering incidences of heart disease. As an effective detoxifier, it is known to help disorders of the blood, including anaemia. Being high in fibre, it can help relive constipation and also contains calcium, iron and vitamins A and C, which are at their highest levels when it is eaten raw.

According to experts, the more brightly coloured the vegetable, the more protective the health benefits against cancer and other diseases. These nutrient-dense, vibrant foods are said to be especially of benefit to people with diabetes as they help control their calorie intake and blood sugar. No questions need to be asked regarding the inclusion of beetroot on the bright coloured vegetable register.

Beetroot comes in various different varieties, shapes, sizes and colours, but small beets or baby beetroot tend to be the sweetest and most tender. Beetroot should be firm with a smooth, undamaged surface. Avoid using very large beets as they may have tough, woody cores. If you want to use the leaves and stems, they should be crisp and fresh looking and not too wilted or coarse. Young leaves add fantastic colour, taste, texture and nutrients to salad leaf mixes and mature leaves and stems can be cooked like spinach and added to dishes as desired — steam uncovered in a pan with a small amount of boiling water and season to taste.

Storing Beetroot: Cut off the leaves and store in an unsealed plastic bag in the fridge. The leaves should be used within a day or two, but the root will keep for a couple of weeks. If you have bountiful harvests and want to store beets in sand overwinter, trim leaves, keeping the tap root intact, and do not wash the beets, just brush the dirt off taking care not to damage the skin. Let the roots dry a little before putting away for storage. Place a layer of sand in a container, (wooden crates work well), lay the beets un-touching on top, put another layer of sand, another layer of beets, and so on. Cover top layer with sand and use as required. If conditions are right, beetroot should keep for up to 5 months, but remember to check stores regularly, removing any damaged beets.

Cooking Beetroot: Boiled, baked, roasted, pickled, pureed, steamed, caramelised, juiced, grated raw in salads, fried as crisps or used to make beetroot soup, jelly, hummus, chutney, relish or wine, there is certainly more ways than one to eat a beetroot. Beetroot even makes an excellent addition to cakes and muffins, especially if fused with chocolate. Much like the carrot in a carrot cake, beetroot keeps the cake moist and helps it to last for days — as if any good cake, especially with the presence of chocolate, is going to last for days!

To conserve beetroot’s colour and nutrients when cooking, rinse and brush clean, but do not remove the skin or root until afterwards. It is best to leave a tail of root and an inch or so of stem attached as otherwise the beetroot will bleed and lose lots of it’s colour, not to mention the leaching of all its goodness.

To boil, cover with cold water and add a little salt and sugar if desired, cover the pot and simmer. Cook until a skewer easily penetrates to the core (anything from 30 minutes to 2 hours boiling or 1½ to 2½ hours baking at 180°C depending on size). If you have a pressure cooker, now is definitely the time to use it. Two hours of boiling can be reduced to 20 minutes for large beets and less for smaller ones.

You may want to wear rubber gloves when cutting and handling beetroot as the pigmentation leaves a pretty stubborn pink stain as I soon discovered after my first attempt at making baby beetroot chutney.

Pickling beetroot: Pickled beetroot can be delightfully delicious or alarmingly crude and this is mostly down to the quality of vinegar used. I find organic cider vinegar or a good organic white wine vinegar gives the most superior taste. Small beets can be pickled whole, but slice larger cooked beets and pack them into warmed jars. Cover the cooked beets with hot vinegar which has a chunk of ginger, a few peppercorns and a teaspoon of allspice added to it. You could also add some sugar to taste, or other spices, or horseradish, if you feel like spicing things up a bit. This pickled beetroot should keep for months and should be left for at least one month before you sample the first jar.

BEETROOT AND COCONUT SOUP

My first encounter with this recipe was in Co Mayo when I had the good fortune to arrive in the kitchen of the Clare Island Yoga Retreat Centre. The incandescent colour of this soup left me spellbound before even tasting the fantastic fusion of the exotic cononut and our humble beetroot.

I haven’t stopped talking about this sublime soup since and Ciara and Christophe from Clare Island have kindly shared their recipe.

Ingredients:

1 lb beetroot

1 tin coconut milk

1 pint water

1 large piece of ginger

1 large carrot (optional)

2 tablespoon of your favourite frying oil

Juice of one lemon or lime

Salt and pepper to taste

Chive and fresh cream (optional, for serving)

Method:

Peel and dice the vegetables. Grate the ginger. Heat the frying oil in a pan and add the diced vegetable and the grated ginger. Cook/fry on high heat for 5 minutes, stirring constantly.

Add the coconut milk and one pint of water. Bring to the boil and lower the heat to a simmer.

Cook until the vegetables are quite tender, then blend to a smooth soup. Bring back to the boil, add salt and pepper to taste and just before serving add the lemon juice. Serve with chopped chives and a spoonful of fresh cream for a dramatic colour effect.

Enjoy and trust me, this soup will win the taste buds of even the most zealous beetroot antagonist.


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