Its peculiar sweet and earthy flavour makes beetroot one of those vegetables that either provoke passions or phobias. Those who love it can take advantage of its many nutritional qualities. It is an antioxidant, high in fibre and low in calories. Considering the sweet taste of this vegetable it only has 43 calories per 100 grammes.
Beetroot is the root of a plant in the amaranth family, which also includes spinach and Swiss chard. Originally from the coastal zones of Europe and Asia, Beta vulgaris (the genus name) was eaten in ancient Greece and Rome, where its leaves were more appreciated than the root, although the philosopher Theophrastus, a contemporary of Aristotle, mentions the pleasant taste of the raw root in his work ‘Historia Plantarum’.
Its easy adaptation to colder climates meant that after the Romans introduced beetroot into cultivation in the lands more to the north of the Empire, from Britania and Germania to the present Bulgaria, it was more widely eaten there.
Dishes such as borsch, vegetable soup, chicken, pork and veal of Ukrainian origin were among the ambassadors of Slavic kitchens.
Borsch usually has among its ingredients some type of acid such as vinegar, and sour cream as a final touch. As Niki Segnit points out in his Encyclopedia of Flavours, acids and salt are the best complements for beetroot. That is also the reason why this versatile and colourful vegetable is most likely to be found in supermarkets pickled in jars.
Consumption of beetroot has gone down in recent years, it tends to be served just in salads or cleansing shakes. However, a mandolin or a grater can help discover new possibilities for this vegetable, ie raw, in salads. The Swedes grate it on to their gravlax, a marinade in which salmon is boned and cured covered with a mixture of grated raw beetroot (about 300 grammes for 1 kilo of salmon), sugar and salt (75 and 100 grammes), lemon zest, 2 or 3 juniper berries, a handful of fresh dill, a glass (50 ml) of vodka and black pepper. After a period of 24 to 72 hours, the layer of beetroot is removed and the salmon cut into thin slices. The red colour is due to betanin, a water soluble pigment present in the vegetable and which is responsible for its antioxidant properties.
Using a mandolin it is possible to cut thin slices of beetroot that can be deep fried to make crisps as an appetiser. Cut as thinly as possible, dry well and fry at 170-180° until they begin to twist and brown (a few seconds). When they are removed from the hot fat they will still be soft, but placed on absorbent paper they will become crisp as soon as they cool down. Sprinkle with salt or salt mixed with a touch of cumin and chilli for an easy appetiser.
Segnit states that beetroot makes an ideal companion to anchovies and as a homemade marinade for other types of seafood such as sardines or mackerel.
In Russia, in addition to the famous Oliver salad, which we now call Russian salad although it is nothing like the original, is another popular dish, the pickled herring. It is similar to Russian salad, but is usually presented in layers. The layers consist of sliced, cooked beetroot, thin slices of gherkin, pickled herring, cooked carrot, thinly sliced raw onion and lettuce. all interspersed with layers of slices of cooked potato. It is then smothered in mayonnaise and decorated with grated hard-boiled eggs.
Beetroot makes a perfect base for ‘dips’. They mix well with thick yogurts and soft curd cheeses and impart a lovely pink colour. Beetroot’s best friend among spices has to be cumin, it enhances the earthy notes of beetroot. Other members of the cumin family also work well with beetroot, such as fennel seeds, caraway or carrot, and can add a touch of aniseed flavour. Dill enhances and strengthens the sweetness, while tarragon brings a lemony hint. To add some spiciness try garlic or ginger.
To cook beetroot it is best to leave the skin and leaves on. Just wash well and trim the leaves back a little if needed. Large beetroot may need up to two hours cooking time on top of the stove. If they are cooked in the oven, they can be cut into chunks first. Sprinkle them with salt or other seasoning (garlic, herbs, ginger) and trickle over a little oil.
They take around 20 to 40 minutes in the oven and are a good accompaniment to grilled pork.
For fruit and vegetable smoothies, beetroot combines well with orange and lemon, carrot, radish and celery.