Get with the beet: Skye Gyngell shows how to get the best out of beetroot

Sweet and earthy, the flavour of beetroot adds a unique twist to all kinds of dishes.
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Beetroot has a very particular sweet, earthy taste that is quite different from any other root vegetable – it seems that no matter how much you scrub them they will nonetheless taste ever so slightly of the soil in which they were grown. It is the combination of gentle sweetness and taste of the vegetable garden that endears them to me.

Best of all, I like them picked small, roasted in their skins and dressed while warm, with a little extra virgin olive oil, a few drops of balsamic, a sprinkling of salt and a grinding of black pepper. They are delicious with both lamb and beef, oily fish and soft cheeses – notably goat's and the wonderful, soft cow's-milk cheeses such as fiore di latte and burrata. Beetroot are also beautiful with autumn squash and bitter winter leaves, or baked in a gratin with a little crème fraîche and thyme. They also combine well with roasted tomatoes, butter and crème fraîche – pureed and served with slightly gamey meats such as pheasant or pigeon, grouse or partridge.

I have always loved beetroot. As a child my mother would boil them until tender, pack them into sterilised jars and pour vinegar, olive oil, sometimes a little honey and soya sauce, over them, and store them in the fridge. We would then use them in everything from salad to hamburgers to the salad sandwiches we made for school – layered between cheese, beansprouts, mayonnaise and lettuce, they were delicious.

I don't like the pre-packaged beetroot you can buy in vacuumed plastic parcels – mainly because they are laced and preserved in malt vinegar, which is bitter tasting. Much better to boil them until tender – dressed in a combination of olive oil and quality red wine vinegar, they will last up to a week in the fridge.

Lastly, it's worth trying them raw. They're good finely sliced or grated into salads, thoroughly delicious in what the Americans call chopped salads, with tomatoes, a good-quality cheese such as Ementhal, smoked ham and perhaps a little corn. Or toss them with homemade mayonnaise – a perfect light lunch.

Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627. Her book 'A Year in My Kitchen', Quadrille, is the 2007 Guild of Food Writers' Cookery Book of the Year

Roasted onion squash, beetroot, mozzarella and basil oil

Onion squash comes into season, in late August, early September. I roast it with the skin on. Its flavour is rich, just slightly sweet and quite complex, and works well with the earthy flavour of beetroot.

Serves 4

8 small beetroot
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
5tbsp of extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion squash
1 dried red chilli
1 small bunch of marjoram
4 balls of buffalo mozzarella
2tbsp of balsamic vinegar

For the basil oil

1 large bunch of basil
60ml/2¼fl oz of extra virgin olive oil
A good pinch of sea salt

Heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4. Wash and pat dry the beetroot, place in a roasting tray, season and drizzle with olive oil. Toss to coat the beetroot. Cover with foil and place in the oven.

Roast for 45 minutes or until the beetroot is tender when pierced with a fork. Remove, allow to cool slightly then slice in half lengthways. Drizzle with a little more olive oil and a little balsamic vinegar. Set aside.

Slice the onion squash in half lengthwise, scrape out the seeds and cut each half into quarters. Lay in a baking tray. Crumble over the chilli and marjoram, add some salt and olive oil and roast for 30 minutes, until tender. Remove to cool.

For the basil oil, remove the stalks from the basil and place the leaves with the oil and salt in a blender. Blitz until you have a lovely, sludgy verdant purée.

To assemble, arrange the pumpkin and beetroot on a plate and lay the mozzarella on top. Spoon over the basil oil and drizzle over the balsamic. Serve immediately.

Roasted pigeon squab with beetroot and tomato purée

This sweet, luxurious beetroot purée works well with the succulent flavour of pigeon. Allow one pigeon per person. Don't bother to truss them – their skin is crispier when not tied up.

Serves 4

4 pigeon squab
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the beetroot purée

20 small tomatoes
A little olive oil
6 small beetroot, washed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
40g/1oz unsalted butter
2tbsp crème fraîche

Pre-heat the oven to 160C/325F/Gas3. Place the tomatoes on a roasting tray. Drizzle over a little olive oil, season with salt and pepper and roast in the oven until soft. This will take about 15 minutes. Remove and set aside.

Turn the oven up to 250C/480F/Gas9, in preparation for the pigeon. Place the birds on a roasting tray, season them well all over and inside the cavity. Place in the hot oven and roast for 15 minutes. When it's done, remove and rest for 10 minutes.

While this is cooking, place the beetroot in a saucepan and cover with cold water, season with salt and bring to the boil.

Turn down the heat and simmer until tender. The beetroot is cooked when it can be easily pierced with a fork. Drain and allow the beetroot to cool slightly and remove the skin.

Place it in a blender along with the roasted tomatoes, crème fraîche and butter. Purée until smooth. Season with salt and black pepper. It should taste buttery and sweet. Set aside.

To serve, gently warm the purée and serve with the pigeon.

Beetroot cake

Although this sounds a little strange, beetroot actually works incredibly well in desserts, its closest equivalent is a carrot cake.

625g/1¼lb self-raising flour
5tsp baking powder
375g/12oz soft brown sugar
250g/8oz sultanas
500g/1lb beetroot, peeled and grated
375ml/13fl oz vegetable or sunflower oil
5 medium-sized eggs

Preheat the oven to 180C350F/Gas4. Grease and line a 28cm loose-based cake tin. Mix together the flour, baking powder and soft brown sugar in a large bowl. Add the sultanas and grated beetroot.

Beat the oil and eggs together and add to the bowl. Combine using either a wooden spoon or electric mixer. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and bake. Substitute carrots for beetroot to turn it into a carrot cake. It works just as well. Place on the middle shelf of the oven and warm and bake for one hour, or until a skewer comes out clean.

The Forager by Wendy Fogarty

Petersham's forager reveals the best places to buy beetroot and pigeon

Perry Court Farm: Kent's first organic and biodynamic farm (founded in 1953) grows and sells beetroot via their farm shop, box scheme, mail order and from farmers' markets in Kent and London. Tel: 0800 083 5942, www.perrycourtfarm.com

Tuckers Seeds: sell 11 different types of beetroot seed including a number of heritage varieties. Choose from the gorgeous white-rooted Cylindra which, as its name suggests, is cylindrical and easy to cut, or try the Italian variety with decorative white rings. www.tuckers-seeds.co.uk

Willo Game: Game dealers Will and Deborah Oakley sell pigeon sourced from local estates near Bishops Castle on the Shropshire/Welsh border. Tel: 01588 650 539, www.willogame.co.uk

Wild Meat: Robert Gooch and Paul Denny sell pigeon from their own and neighbouring estates in East Anglia. Available online and from farmers' markets and butchers in East Anglia (see website for locations). Tel: 01728 663 211, www.wildmeat.co.uk

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