Eat to the beet

Sweet and sour roots
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I used to do an evil thing in the kitchens at Bibendum. Come Sunday morning, when the final grindings of horseradish root to accompany the roast beef for lunch were underway, I would alert an unsuspecting waiter on one of his various treks past my station.

"Good morning, Gavin! How are you? Smell this! It's wonderful!" Trusting Gavin would thrust his nose into the goblet of the liquidiser and inhale deeply. Then, as the coughing fits started, the eyes watered, the face reddened, he would rush out of the kitchen with a shocked expression. New chefs received the same initiation early on in their sojourn, so they marked the waiter's retreat with much mirth and merriment. Oh, the joys of the restaurant kitchen! Just like school.

I have always loved home-made horseradish sauce, and its nose-cleansing qualities and fieriness are what make it especially appealling. There was masses of it growing in the garden of the house in which I grew up - so much so that Dad was constantly having to hack it back and dig it up.

That is not to say that horseradish grows anywhere. Perversely, the people I know who have wanted to grow it seldom have much success, whereas those who can't stand the stuff are unable to rid the ground of stray roots. It also grows wild - a friend, who is as passionate about it as I, never travels without an old spade in the boot of his car. Whenever he spies a few healthy leaves - similar to dock - on a roadside verge, he screeches the motor to a halt, leaps out and digs it up. Passing motorists must wonder what the devil he is up to.

Dad made excellent horseradish sauce. There were certain things that Dad always cooked: bread sauce, curry, kidneys and lamb's fry (testicles), black pudding and paella, to name but a few. All the interesting bits and pieces, I suppose. But his horseradish was a real winner - and, curiously enough, he cooked the stuff. For me, though, a fresh root of horseradish is at its most effective when freshly grated, and simply mixed with a little lemon juice, sugar, salt, and double cream. It is then whipped up a bit (the acidity in the lemon, together with an enzyme in the horseradish, effects an almost immediate thickening of the cream). But Dad's was made almost like a white sauce, with vinegar and (I think) a little dry mustard powder.

I remember unscrewing the lid from the jar in the fridge, inhaling the pungent fumes and sticking my finger in. This could be at any time of the day, but was particularly good when digitally spread onto leftover cold roast potatoes around the time of Songs of Praise on a Sunday evening. It seemed every bit as powerful as the stuff I make now.

Beetroot, however, when pureed together with fresh horseradish, is wonderfully lethal. Those who are familiar with this puissant combo, will know it as chren (or chrain). The Jewish race eats large amounts of it with cold fish - or gefilte, as it is known in this context. I always serve this deep purple relish with boiled salt beef or tongue, or with both cooked together in the style of an Italian bollito.

Similarly - but it is certainly not kosher - it goes well with cotechino and zampone sausages, hot boiled ham, and a dish of trotters. But any perky relish is good for cutting through these gelatinous and fatty meats.

Cooked beetroot in its own right is a much under-rated vegetable.The scarlet-stained green salad of the British high tea or Sunday supper is fairly typical of the (unintentional) contempt in which we hold it: slosh over some malt vinegar, over-sweeten the already sweet root with sugar and stick it in a glass dish (usually Pyrex), and let it bleed.

But there are a few dedicated cooks who know about beetroots with parsley sauce and how to make a nice borscht - neither of which require a great deal of toil to make. Joyce Molyneux, of the celebrated Carved Angel in Dartmouth - of whom I spoke last week - serves a truly delicious hot dish of grated beetroot with hot, salted ox tongue. And in his seminal work, Cuisine Gourmande, Michel Guerard gives a recipe for a hot, sweet-and-sour puree of beetroot and tomato that he suggests serving with game, of which I might choose a roasted saddle of hare as being the ideal vehicle.

Beetroot puree with wine vinegar, serves 4

110g/4oz tomatoes

350g/12oz cooked beetroot, peeled

150g/5oz peeled onions

1 tsp olive oil

1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed

3 tbsp red wine vinegar (or sherry vinegar, which lends a particularly interesting note)

salt and pepper

1 tbsp double cream

scant 150ml/5fl oz good hot chicken stock (home-made, preferably, or use a cube at a pinch)

Plunge the tomatoes into boiling water for 10 seconds, drain and slip off their skins. Slice in two and squeeze out the pips in your hands. Coarsely chop the flesh, put onto a plate and set aside. Cut the beetroot and onions into thin slices. Heat the olive oil in a saucepan, and in it gently fry the onions and garlic until soft but not coloured. Pour in the vinegar, and add the chopped tomato pulp and sliced beetroot. Season with salt and pepper, partially cover and cook over a very low light for 1 hour (use one of those heat-diffuser pads if you have one).

Once cooked, puree in a liquidiser, together with the cream and stock (you may not need all the stock) until the mixture is very smooth and light in texture. You may prefer to use a food processor for this, but the puree may not become as smooth as in a liquidiser. Keep warm and covered, in a bowl suspended over barely simmering water, until needed.

Simple creamed horseradish to go with roast beef, enough for 6 servings of beef, including seconds

Do not ever be tempted to save time by grinding lumps of peeled horseradish to a paste in the bowl of a food processor. If you do this, the horseradish will become unacceptably bitter. I don't know why, but it just does. Hand- grating, I'm afraid, is the initial and essential route to take. Have a hanky handy. Try and make it just before lunch, so that it retains its fresh punch; whilst listening to Desert Island Discs, perhaps?

175g/6oz piece of fresh horseradish root, peeled and freshly grated

2 tsp sugar

1 level tsp salt

juice of one lemon

275ml/12 pint double cream

Place the grated horseradish in the bowl of a food processor, together with the sugar, salt and lemon juice. Work to a smooth paste and tip into a fairly roomy bowl. Add the cream and beat together with a whisk. Watch how you go, as the mixture will suddenly thicken before you can say Sue Lawley. Check for more salt, sugar or lemon juice and spoon into your nicest sauce boat.

Chren (puree of beetroot and horseradish), serves 6-8 as a relish (it will keep in the fridge, in a screw-top jar for a couple of weeks)

4-5 medium sized cooked beetroots, peeled and cut into chunks

175g/6oz piece of fresh horseradish root, peeled and freshly grated

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

2 level tbsp caster sugar

salt to taste

Simply blend all the ingredients in a food processor until coarsely pureed.

Young beetroots in parsley sauce, serves 4

16 (approx) small and fresh beetroots, usually sold in bunches, similar to small turnips

for the parsley sauce:

1 healthy bunch of flat-leaf parsley

450ml milk

1 small onion, peeled and chopped

3 pieces of pith-less lemon zest

2 cloves

1 sprig thyme

1 bay leaf

freshly grated nutmeg

salt and pepper

100ml double cream

Wash the beets well, snip off their trailing roots and tops, put into a pan and cover with water. Add a little salt and bring up to the boil. Simmer, uncovered, until the beets are tender when pierced with a small knife - about 40 minutes or thereabouts. Meanwhile, make the parsley sauce.

Pick the leaves off the bunch of parsley and set aside. Coarsely chop up the stalks and put into a saucepan. Add the milk, onion, lemon zest, cloves, thyme and bay leaf. Heat together and bring up to a simmer. Cook very gently for 5 minutes, switch off the heat, put a lid on, and leave to infuse for 30 minutes. By now the beets should be cooked. Drain them, peel whilst still warm - the simplest of tasks as the skins just slip away in your fingers - and put into a serving dish. Cover with foil and keep hot in a low oven.

Melt the butter in another pan (preferably with a thick base) and stir in the flour to make a roux. Strain the flavoured milk onto this, stirring constantly, and, once more, bring up to a simmer using a heat-diffuser pad if you have one. Set the pan onto this and allow to cook ever so gently over a thread of heat, for about 10 minutes. Chop the parsley very finely and add to the sauce together with the cream. Simmer for a further 5 minutes so that the parsley flavours the sauce. Check for seasoning and pour over the hot beetroots. Serve at once. Very good with roast lamb and mint sauce for Sunday lunch

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