Best known for its sweet-tasting (usually)dark red flesh and exceptionally powerful staining properties, beetroot also comes in yellow and white varieties, and has edible, spinach-like leaves which can be picked repeatedly and regrown. It is from the same family as spinach, sea-kale and swiss chard and is closely related to mangolds and sugar beet, which show the same characteristic rings when their flesh is sliced across. It's commonly used as a dye and colourant in the food industry.
Beetroot preparation ideas at a glance
One of our favourite ways of eating beetroot is raw – scrubbed well (thus preserving all the goodness directly below the skin) and grated, it is luscious and delicious – it goes particularly well with a squeeze of orange juice and a handful of raisins. Otherwise you could scrub, boil till tender, slip off the skins, cube and toss with a creamy dressing (yoghurt, mayonnaise, dill) for a beautiful fuchsia salad, (it combines well with potatoes in this way too.) Try tossing 1inch cubed beetroot and apple in olive oil and roast for an accompaniment to any savoury bake or meat dish. Or simply preheat the oven to 200C, cut washed beetroot and carrots into chunks of about an inch, turn into a casserole dish with a lid and bake for about an hour until they are tender, the vegetables retain their flavour well in this simple way. They also make a wonderfully rich magenta coloured chocolate cake, check out the recipe!
Beetroot grows best in saline or alkaline soils and a cold climate, though they need lifting before heavy frosts. Different strains can be harvested from early summer to late autumn, and vary in size and shape. Small round beets are picked early for salads or for freshly boiling; longer, larger ones for baking or storage over winter. Beetroots store better with their tops taken off - but twist them off, don't cut them, to prevent bleeding. Indeed the over-riding aim in all preparation and cooking of beetroot is to avoid the juice bleeding out, and with it much of the flavour and nutrients. They have a high nitrate content, and as a result a daily regime of beetroot juice will help to lower blood pressure and can have positive effects on athletic performance. They contain vitamin C, anti-oxidants and minerals including iron, sodium, potassium and magnesium.
Beetroot was cultivated from wild sea-beet originating in coastal areas of Europe and West Asia; paleobotanists have found evidence of beets from c. 3000 BC. The ancient Greeks are thought to have eaten the leaves; the ancient Romans, the root. The modern beetroot is said to have been developed by medieval gardeners in Germany, from whence it spread largely north and eastwards, as witness national dishes found throughout Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Russia, of herring and beetroot salad, and umpteen varieties of borscht (beetroot soup). Beetroot has been popular in Britain too since Tudor times, though the 20th-century British habit of pickling it in malt vinegar, served as an invariable accompaniment to cold meat, may well be to blame for some people's aversion to this tasty and nutritious vegetable.