The beetroot has come a long way since being awarded its Australian icon status as an essential ingredient in a “burger with the lot”. Chefs and home cooks alike are giving the beetroot the attention it rightfully deserves in the kitchen. Favoured for its vibrant colour and earthy tones, it has graduated to becoming the hero ingredient in many savoury dishes and has even crossed the taste bud divide by now being an important ingredient also in desserts.
Although its scientific name is Beta Vulgaris we cannot find a single vulgar thing to say about the beetroot, actually quite the contrary. It is easy to grow and since its preferred soil temperature ranges from 7°C to 25°C, the period when it can be planted is long making it versatile. Being a root vegetable, it prefers to be planted from seed (a depth three-fold its diameter being ideal) and will appreciate being placed in soil that has had stones removed and large clumps of soil broken down. To prepare the seeds for planting allow them to soak for up to 24 hours and remember that beetroots produce a seedball instead of individual seeds.These seedballs contain a small number of individual seeds which means that your rows will need to be thinned-out in the early stages of growth. The advantage to this is that it will be a great opportunity to pluck out some delicious baby beetroots for your next salad, roasting medley or pickling jars. As a general rule, keep a good 10 centimetres between seedlings to allow ample room for growth.
When it comes to sunlight, beetroots are quite versatile and will adapt. Ideally though, a nice spot with at least four hours of full sunshine will make them happy and allow them to reach their full potential faster. During mid-summer when sunrays are at their harshest, they will appreciate some shade to help them get through the day. When it comes to watering, beetroots are a lot like carrots, it is best to keep their watering consistent. Floods and droughts will only result in dry tubers, cracks and splits.
When to harvest is a personal preference with beetroots since the smaller the beetroot, the sweeter the taste. Of course the larger the beetroot, the more produce but this will come at a slight price when it comes to taste. Although the main prize is those lovely tubers, let us not forget those tasty leaves on top. Pick the outer leaves and add them to your salad but remember to leave behind enough leaves to allow the plant to continue its growth cycle.
If you’ve turned your back on your beetroots and they have become quite large making them less desirable for delicate roasting and salads then it is time to plug in the juicer. A beetroot adds a nutritional punch to your detox, energy or just-plain-delicious fresh juices when combined with other garden dwellers such as carrots, ginger, apples and spinach leaves.
Traditionally, in the kitchen, beetroots have been mainly subjected to prolonged boiling which although is fine in itself does tend to result in the beetroot’s precious nutrients getting drained away with the boiling water. Roasting is now becoming the preferred method of cooking since doing so keeps all the goodness inside the beetroot and brings out its lovely sweetness. A quick wrap in foil and an hour or so later it will be ready to be enjoyed as a vegetable side dish or as a soup once the usual base ingredients of onions, garlic, stock and spices are added and the lot is blitzed into a smooth puree.
Although the list of savoury recipes showcasing the unique beetroot are numerous, delicious and, of course, nutritious, it is the sweet side of its culinary life that is getting more and more interesting. With dietary habits trending towards the drastic reduction in raw sugar coupled with our still-strong love for the sweet stuff, this has made the beetroot an obvious choice for bakers and pastry chefs alike. The combination of chocolate and beetroot, for example, is a perfect match for the palate and a perfectly-subtle way of incorporating more vegetables into the household diet. Nothing beats it!