Beetroot – Beta vulgaris – By Dave and Andy Hamilton

This misunderstood vegetable is often treated like that strange friend from school who despite heavy hints, stays in t ouch. It sits there in a pickle jar at the back of your cupboard taunting you.  It may make an awkward occasional appearance at a dinner party where it stains the salad and taints the overall flavour with a slight acidic vinegary taste. However, this vegetable need not be treated with contempt nor embarrassment and as many amateur vegetables growers across the country know, it should be given pride of place at the head of the table; revered and treated like royalty.  That is to say that beetroot when cooked correctly is one of the most delicious vegetables to reach the table. Beetroot can be one of the sweetest vegetables that you have ever tasted if you cook them correctly. I served up some fried mini beetroots during a lunch meeting and the non pickled beetroot virgins present have been going on about the taste ever since.  For me this is why beetroot is one of the most popularly grown vegetables on allotments in the UK.

It seems that the secrets of beetroots are set for a revival given that it has received the often ubiquitous status of a superfood. Sales of beetroot are increasing year on year with retails reporting close to a 50% rise in sales this is partly thanks to the health benefits; it’s rich in folic acid and fibre and can also help fight heart disease, arthritis and cancer.  It is not just the body that benefits from eating beetroot, but also the mind as beetroot contains tryptophan, an essential amino acid that can aid relaxation and promote natural sleep, and betaine which will also help relax the mind. It is perhaps for these reasons that beetroot eaters seem like laid back people.

Beetroot is thought to have evolved from its near relative sea beet which can be found on our shores and across west Europe and Asia. Similarly to beetroot the leaves of sea beat can be eaten, often used in recipes as a substitute for spinach. Don’t be tempted to harvest the root of sea beet though as it is not only illegal to pick roots without permission but the roots are small and unappetising.  Although difficult to accurately date as unlike seeds and grains, roots and leaves rot away leaving no trace for archaeologists to study, references in around 300 BC claim the Greek cultivation of the plant where varieties of beet plants with edible roots were grown. It does seem that the beetroot as we know it today is a relatively modern invention. Beetroots remained long and thin until medieval times and one of the earliest records of a swollen root was in the mid fifteen hundreds. Even then the red beetroot did not surface until the 17th Century.

I grow beetroot every year and, ignoring most popular advice and planting the seeds as tightly as possible, every year my efforts are rewarded with three crops. The first crop is the leaves to use in salads or in recipes as a spinach substitute, the second delicious smaller and sweeter roots and thirdly the traditional larger roots.

Beetroot Leaf pancakes

This recipe is one that I have adapted over the years and it can be served as a starter, part of a main course or a delicious snack when you come back from a bit of hard graft in the garden or allotment.

For the pancake

1 egg

125g plain flour

300ml milk

Rapeseed oil

Heat the oil in the pan. Beat the egg in a large mixing bowl, sift the flour and slowly pour in the milk whilst continually mixing the ingredients. Keep mixing until there are no lumps in the batter and cover the bottom of the pan with the batter. Turn once, cook both sides until they are golden brown and keep warm in the oven between two plates until you are ready to serve.

For the Mixture

1 onion

1 clove of garlic

The leaves of 5 beetroots

50g of mature cheddar cheese

Fry the onion until it starts to soften then add one clove of crushed garlic and the chopped beetroot leaves. When the beetroot leaves have reduced in size, grate the cheese on top and cook until it has melted. Serve as a filling for the pancakes.

Fried mini beetroots

This is one of the first dishes offered by the new season and it is simplicity itself. Pick the beetroots when they are somewhere between the size of a two pence coin and a golf ball.

Ingredients

10 mini beetroots

knob of butter

Method

Cut the leaves off the beetroots, wash and cut them in half. Fry until they turn a little pink.

Beetroot Cake

Carrot cake is very popular as you know but I think that this recipe could be a contender for your taste buds.

Ingredients

250g self-raising flour, sieved
1 teaspoons baking powder
150g soft brown sugar
125g sultanas
200g beetroot

150ml Rapeseed oil
2 eggs

Instructions

Peel and grate the beetroot. Mix together the flour, baking powder, sugar, beetroot and sultanas in a large mixing bowl. Combine the eggs and the oil in a separate bowl and lightly beat. Pour the egg mixture into the large bowl and mix thoroughly. Grease and line an 8 inch loose based cake tin and spoon in the mixture.

Bake at 180C, 350F, Gas Mark 4 for about 1 hour. Allow to cool on a wire rack before devouring.

Beetroot Colour

It is a popular misconception that the colour of beetroot is due to a pigment known as anthocyanin, the pigment in red cabbage. It is in fact due to the purple pigment betacyanin and a yellow one betaxanthin known collectively as betalins. There are other breeds of beetroot that are not the usual deep red, such as Burpee’s Golden’ with an orange red skin and yellow flesh and Albina Vereduna which is white. These have a greater or lesser distribution of the two betalin pigments.

The pigments are contained in cell vacuoles (holes). Beetroot cells are quite unstable and will ‘leak’ when cut, heated and when they come into contact with air or sunlight. This is why you will inevitably get a purple stain on your plate when eating beetroot. If the skin is left on when cooking however this will maintain the integrity of the cells and therefore minimise leakage.

The pigment stabilises in acid conditions, which is a good reason why beetroot is often pickled.

Growing Beetroot

I have found beetroot one of the easiest things I have grown. Like many others this is another plant that we are told to sow after the risk of the last frost has gone. However, it can also be grown in a window box all year round. Simply bring your window box inside when there is a chance of frost. I would suggest buying a smaller variety of beetroot if you plan to grow them in a container Baby beetroot pronto is a good one to try. If you are growing outside then for the first time, I would suggest getting a ‘boltardy’ variety simply because they are easier to grow.

It is often suggested that the ‘seeds’ should be sown thinly, I disagree and sow the seeds close together. This is not just because of my rebellious nature, but down to my taste. I enjoy eating beetroot leaves in salads and the young shoots are deliciously sweet. They can be constantly thinned, as you need them, throughout the growing period. I do, however, sow them in rows about 38cm (15inches) apart.

I have written ‘seeds’ in inverted commas as each seed is in fact a seed pod containing many seeds.

Beetroot will grow in most soil conditions, for example they have worked on my clay soil and in my compost filled window box. However, ideally the ph level should be between 6.5 – 7.5.

Beetroot will appreciate watering in dry weather and ideally need to be in weed free soil. I have not kept my allotment weed free and they have all come up well, although some have struggled slightly against the cooch grass. Birds, slugs, snails and woodlouse have all had nibbles at my beetroot. I have put in a pond to get rid of the slugs and netting can be used to protect the young shoots against birds.

All varieties should take between 56-126 days to grow. If you like your beetroot sweeter then it is worth pulling out some immature plants.

As too much wet and frost can damage your beetroot it is worth lifting them before the bad weather starts and storing them in a clamp.

I have left some of my beetroot in the ground to let them go to seed, to get the best seed they should be left for two years, however, if you are lucky then they might bolt and you will get seed earlier. This seed will not be as good as what you will get after two years.

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