Nigel Slater, TV cook, bestselling cookery author and food columnist for The Observer, has joined the RHS grow your own campaign.
In this new series for 2009, Nigel focuses on the best produce for growing and cooking.
Nigel's beetroot recipes
Discover Nigel's beetroot recipes:
Using both leaves and roots in his cooking, Nigel Slater believes beetroot is a valuable addition to any vegetable plot.
Part of the joy of even a small crop of beetroot is that it is two vegetables in one: the red-veined leaves and their stems, and the better-known swollen root below. Beetroot leaves themselves have two uses, firstly as a salad ingredient, and then as a vegetable to use as you might spinach. As growing your own goes, few vegetables are more straight-forward, especially if they can start life in a warm soil.
For a salad, I tend to choose the leaves when they are not much larger than a teaspoon. The stems will be fine, the leaves a soft shade of green with deep pink veins. For all their immaturity, their distinctly earthy flavour still comes through loud and clear. I mix them with corn salad (mache), young spinach leaves and sometimes watercress.
Growing in the garden
It took a while for beetroot to take in my garden, but as my heavy soil started to break down with regular annual introductions of well-rotted compost, my early spring sowings of beet seed (cultivar ‘Boltardy’ is my favourite) not only germinated but have actually done rather well. Beet leaves, including yellow-veined ‘Burpee’s Golden’, have looked handsome next to my rhubarb chard and ‘Connecticut Field’ pumpkins.
Though the leaves are often badly holed by the smaller, slimier, predators in my garden, I am not sure it matters. If the sight of lacy leaves bothers you, chop them thoroughly after cooking. No-one will know! I use beet leaves in the same way as I do spinach, especially as a side dish for meat. Their earthy notes are good with beef casseroles, game and with grilled lamb’s liver.
As the leaves mature they become coarser, their veins turning a deeper crimson. On the plate they seem the very picture of healthy eating. It is best to twist the stalks off just above the shoulders of the root, so it does not bleed when cooked. If you accidentally pierce the skin, you are in for a pot of deep red water and pale pink beetroots. I often cook the leaves simply: rinse thoroughly in cold water, add them straight to the pot with their rinsing water still clinging, then leave them to cook under a tight lid in their own steam. They take barely three or four minutes to become tender, even less if they are young. I pour off any liquid, pressing the leaves firmly against the side of the pan, then add a dash of olive oil or melted butter. The butter seems to lessen the ‘furry teeth’ effect that you can get from both spinach and beet leaves.
The roots can also be eaten at various stages, and are particularly sweet when the size of a golf ball. At that point they take less time to cook than if they are left to mature to the size of large apples. Some of the smaller roots can be tender when boiled for just 30 minutes, the larger ones up to an hour. Many do not make it into boiling water, however: I grate lots of mine raw, and toss them with lemon juice and poppy seeds. They look beautiful when stirred through with raw carrots and parsley.
More ways in the kitchen
I often find that baking produces a more intense flavour than boiling. The easiest method is to wrap up the raw roots in foil then bake them in a low oven for a good hour. They emerge tender but with an extraordinary depth of flavour. You then only need to pull off their skins – an easy job: you can slide them off with your thumb – and dress them with some yoghurt and freshly chopped dill.
A favourite dish is a gratin of beetroot, which is made like a potato gratin, leaving the beetroot to stew slowly in cream (seasoned with a few slices of onion if you wish) and sometimes, a little garlic. The main difference being that I boil the roots until almost tender first. This vegetable has an affinity with rare roast beef, especially when the beef gravy mixes with the creamy juice from the gratin.
Gluts are common, especially in late summer, when the roots have been allowed to grow large. There are only so many times a week we want such a sugary vegetable on our plate. Luckily there is much else around at this time including onions, early apples and tomatoes, all ripe for a mixed vegetable chutney. Soup is a sound way of relieving the load, and its shock of sweetness can be moderated by stirring in some sour cream or, more interesting I think, a wedge or two of goat’s cheese.
Cooked, beetroot has almost endless uses, but beware the juice: my kitchen walls are spotted with red, courtesy of this particular ingredient. You can drink the juice, too. Peel the beets and push them through a heavy-duty juicer. They produce an almost arterial red liquor, with a deep mineral flavour and a large pink head. After the initial shock of its sweet mineral quality, I now lessen the effect by including apples and carrots: an exhilarating way to start the day.