Gone are the days when beetroot was gathered late in the autumn, harvested only upon reaching the size of a tennis ball or larger, and then boiled into submission and tortured in malt vinegar (or worse, "non-brewed condiment", as used in fish and chip shops). The results would burn the lining off the roof of your mouth.
The summer beetroot, however, little bigger than a golf ball, has made a glorious 1998 debut. Raymond Blanc, who grows no fewer than five varieties in his ample kitchen garden at La Manoir aux Quat' Saisons near Oxford, has placed them firmly on his complex and ambitious new menu. He offers them as an appetiser in their own right - a few sweet, purple discs, bathed in a sparse dressing of olive oil.
Peter Gordon, the outrageously outgoing chef at the newly-relocated Sugar Club off Regent Street, is doing a beetroot pesto, for goodness sake; tender summer beetroot processed with oil as a dressing for chicken or beef.
But they were pre-dated by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers at The River Cafe; pioneering Italian ways with vegetables, they introduced baby beetroot, wrapped in foil and slow-baked in wood-fired ovens. And even they were not the first. Elizabeth Buxton, who collaborated with actor Terence Stamp on the Stamp Collection (a range of products for people with food intolerances), created delicious beetroot crisps, as well as crisps of sweet potatoes and other root vegetables.
Now there are chefs who use deep-fried, finely shredded beetroot and other root vegetables (matchsticks or allumettes as the French call them) as a sweet, crispy garnish to a main course of, say, roast fish. A matchstick garnish of carrot, celeriac and beetroot gives a contrast in both colour and flavour.
But the beetroot has been a late-comer to recognition among British sophisticates. Elizabeth David, our first and most influential food critic, regarded it as a symbol of Britons' uncomplaining acceptance of unspeakable food. She wrote with contempt of pub salads, boiled beetroot in vinegar, bleeding onto a wet outer lettuce leaf, served with unripe quarters of tomato and slices of unpeeled cucumber.
And even the brilliant food scholar Jane Grigson, whose Vegetable Book is a bible on its subject, found little to commend in the British cook's handling of this vegetable. She wrote: "We do not seem to have much success with beetroot in this country. Perhaps this is the beetroot's fault. It is not an inspiring vegetable, unless you have a medieval passion for highly-coloured food. With all that purple juice bleeding at the tiniest opportunity, a cook may reasonably feel that beetroot has taken over the kitchen and is far too bossy a vegetable. I have never heard anyone claim it as their favourite." (But then she may not have known many people of Russian or Polish extraction.)
Jane Grigson is by no means so damning of the results achieved beyond our shores. While beets as a whole have a long history, the red beet only emerged some 200 years ago in Germany. Its popularity has been greatest there (in a salad with walnuts, or sauerkraut) and among adjacent nations, such as Poland and Russia, in soups and salads, and in Holland, cooked with onion and apple as an accompaniment to duck or ham, roast pork or fried sausages.
In Sweden and Norway, beetroot is relished with pickled herring as a salad (diced cooked beetroot, with boiled cubes of potato, raw chopped apple, raw onion rings and quartered hard-boiled eggs).
In Russia, cooked beetroot and potato are combined in a "beetroot vinaigrette", an all-winter staple. France has in its classic repertoire a salade polonaise (julienned strips of cooked beetroot, a cream and mustard dressing, sharpened with lemon juice, seasoned with salt and pepper, served with grated horseradish and quartered hard-boiled eggs). But the classic beetroot dish, it almost goes without saying, is the Russian and Polish soup borscht, a deep red pool into which a blob of sour cream is swirled. The two colours and textures perform a transformation as absorbing as a changing sunset.
Jane Grigson makes a point of recommending the larger beetroot rather than baby beets, the latter being too sweet and lacking flavour. But she may well have been referring to those sold cooked, which was the fashion when she wrote her book 21 years ago. It is now easier to buy uncooked beetroot, taking the preparation out of the hands of unskilled greengrocers (unskilled in the kitchen arts, that is).
There are several indelicate points about cooked beetroot which don't often get aired (sensitive readers may wish to skip the next few paragraphs and move on to the recipes): just as cooked asparagus leaches a dreadful substance called mercaptan into the system, exiting in your waters with the smell of bad drains, so beetroot exits in a tide of red, causing males to consider whether they haven't ruptured something inside and ladies I don't know what.
When William Shakespeare coined the bloody phrase "multudinous seas incarnadine", it might as well have been inspired by the aftermath of a beetroot supper.
And be warned that beetroot, eaten in excess, has a property that it shares with the Jerusalem artichoke, bean stews and braised leeks and onions - of inducing flatulence (back to Shakespeare: King Lear, "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks"). This is not due to undigested sugars (as in the case of beans and onions), says Raymond Blanc, but to a toxin unique to beetroot, which is destroyed by thorough cooking.
So, the recipe for his starter of discs of beetroot is simplic-ity itself. "The secret of beetroot, as of most vegetables, is freshness," he says, "to get them on the plate within two or three hours of picking."
He chooses beets of identical size, barely the width of a golf ball, 3cm (112in) across. Without peeling, he puts them into a pan, covers them with the minimum of water, adding 10g (12oz) of sugar and 20ml (1fl oz)of white wine vinegar per litre (134pt) of water. After bringing the beets to the boil, he turns down the heat and simmers them for 30 minutes.
He peels them while still warm, slices them, and dribbles a little beetroot "jus" over them (this is made from the juice of freshly grated beetroot, squeezed and sieved, with a touch of sugar and a few drops of white wine vinegar, brought to the boil quickly, then cooled at once). He rubs the sliced, cooked beets in this mixture to give them a gloss, dressing with a few drops of extra virgin olive oil.
Sometimes Raymond wraps unpeeled baby beets in aluminum foil, adding a little water, white wine vinegar and sugar, putting them in a very low oven to cook slowly in their own steam. He allows two hours at 250F/130C/Gas 12.
Below you'll find two state-of-the art modern recipes using baby beets, Peter Gordon's beetroot pesto, one from The River Cafe Cookbook Two (Ebury) and another from Alastair Little's Keep It Simple (Conran Octopus). Also, two traditional soups, the famous borscht, a winter staple in Eastern Europe, and a chilled summer version called swekolnik, adapted from Elizabeth David's Summer Cooking (Penguin). But first, how to make beetroot crisps from Sybil Kapoor's Simply British (Michael Joseph).
SYBIL KAPOOR'S BEETROOT CRISPS
There are only a certain number of dishes that large beetroots are fit for, and crisps is one of them. Different vegetables crisps have become very popular in Britain, and can now be bought as a snack food. But they taste even better home-made, particularly with game and duck. They can even be added to salads. As is so often the case with cooking, all the rules governing the preparation of beetroot are ignored for this particular recipe.
4 large beetroots
vegetable oil for deep frying
1 teaspoon finely chopped thyme
Preheat the oven to 250F/130C/Gas 12. Scrub the beetroots clean under cold water. Cut away their roots and stems and peel before slicing finely using either a food processor or a mandoline. Wrap your knuckles in a tea towel if you are using the latter, as beetroot are tough and will slip easily.
Heat the oil to 350F/180C. Slip the beetroot slices in small batches into the oil and cook them for about two minutes or until they become speckled with tiny blisters. Do not cook until brown or they will taste bitter. Remove from the oil and drain on kitchen paper before spreading out on a baking sheet. They will not become crisp until they cool. Repeat until all the slices are cooked, then place them in the oven for 30 minutes so that they gently dry out further. Finally tip the crisps into a large mixing bowl and sprinkle them with salt and thyme. Serve warm or cold.
They can be made in advance and reheated in a low oven.
ICED RUSSIAN SOUP
4 small beetroots (leaves removed and reserved), cooked in simmering water for 30 minutes, or until tender
12 cucumber, peeled and diced
2 gherkins, diced
2 tablespoons pickling liquid from the gherkins
fresh chopped herbs, such as 5 leaves of tarragon, 5 stalks of chives, a sprig of mint, green feathers of fennel (if available)
150ml/5fl oz cream
salt and pepper
100ml/312fl oz tarragon vinegar
8 ice cubes, loosely crushed
600ml/1pt iced water
Destalk the beetroots. Keep the leaves from two and wash. Cook in salted water for five minutes, squeeze dry, and chop.
Dice the peeled beetroot and put into a bowl with the leaves, adding the vinegar, pickling liquid, cucumber and gherkins. Pour on the cream; chill in the fridge for two hours.
Thin the mixture with iced water to taste; add the chopped herbs. Serve in soup bowls with pieces of ice floating on top. The soup is a rather violent pink, very good on a hot evening.
500g/1lb stewing beef
350g/12oz white cabbage, shredded
4 small beetroot, uncooked
2 carrots, cut into matchsticks
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 large onion, diced
225g/8oz tomatoes, skinned and sieved
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon dill
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 or 2 bayleaves
4-5 allspice seeds
112 teaspoons salt
12 teaspoon black pepper
Wash and dry the meat and trim off surplus fat. Cut the meat into pieces and put into a saucepan with water. Bring to the boil, skim, reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 45 minutes.
Reserve one of the beetroots and cut the remaining three into matchstick- sized strips. Add all the vegetables, apart from the reserved beetroot and the tomatoes, to the stock and continue to simmer for 20 to 25 minutes.
Add the skinned and sieved tomatoes, vinegar, bayleaves, sugar, salt, pepper and allspice. Cook gently for 15 minutes.
Finely grate the reserved beetroot. Put it in a small pan with a cupful of the stock, simmer for five minutes and strain the liquid into the borscht. Check the seasoning, sharpen with the lemon juice and sprinkle with the dill and parsley.
Serve the cream separately, to be added according to taste.
RIVER CAFE BARBE ROSSE IN CARTOCCIO
BABY BEETROOTS BAKED IN FOIL
18 small summer beetroots
100ml/312fl oz extra virgin olive oil
Maldon salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
1 large bunch of fresh thyme, leaves picked from the stalks
juice of 2 lemons
Preheat oven to 425F/220C/Gas 7. Cut the leaves off the beets, keeping the tail intact. Wash them, dry, then put in a bowl.
Cut foil into 18cm by 13cm (7x5in) squares, or squares large enough to wrap each beetroot individually. Brush one side of the foil with olive oil. Scatter with salt and pepper, a few slices of garlic and some thyme leaves. Place the beetroots on top and wrap. Place the parcels on a baking tray and bake for 45 minutes. Test by inserting the point of a knife; they should be soft. Serve drizzled with extra virgin oil and lemon juice.
Because the beetroot loses colour in cooking, the best way to give it a dramatic crimson flush is to simmer a little grated fresh beetroot in stock (or vinegar or lemon juice) and add it during the last five minutes of cooking.
ALASTAIR LITTLE'S BABY BEETS AND SPRING ONIONS STEWED IN CREAM
450g/1lb baby beetroots
1 shallot and 1 spring onion
juice of 1 lemon
about 300ml/12pt double cream
salt and pepper
Put a large pan of lightly salted water on to heat. If necessary, trim the leaves off the beetroot, leaving about 1cm (12in) of the stalks protruding. Cut off the straggly root tip. Chop the shallot finely and cut the spring onion across into rings.
Cook the beetroot for about 30 minutes in lots of boiling water until tender (remember, even young beetroots can be very woody). Refresh in cold water and peel while warm.
Melt the butter in a wide shallow saucepan and sweat the shallot in it until translucent. Add the beetroots, lemon juice and salt and pepper, and turn to mix and coat. Pour round the cream to come halfway up the beets and stew, stirring from time to time, until it is very hot and the cream has turned an entrancing regal colour.
Transfer to a warmed serving dish, scatter with the spring onion rings and bring to the table immediately.
PETER GORDON'S BEETROOT PESTO
This makes a restaurant-sized quantity, but the pesto keeps well in a jar in the fridge.
200g/7oz cooked beetroot (cooked in foil in the oven to concentrate flavour)
150g/5oz toasted pine nuts
5 cloves peeled garlic, crushed
150g/5oz grated Parmesan
a bunch of basil leaves
1 lemon, peeled zest and juice
12 teaspoon salt
about 250ml/8fl oz extra virgin olive oil
Tip the ingredients into a food processor, and blend until fairly smooth, adding oil until you get a pesto-like consistency. Serve as a dressing with chargrilled chicken or roast beef.Reuse content