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The beet goes on

A serious vegetable requires serious attention

"The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious." So begins Tom Robbins’ novel, Jitterbug Perfume.

Beets, also called beetroot in the UK, New Zealand and Australia, are often overlooked as vegetables worthy of harvest table presentation. Perhaps it is their striking colour that bleeds onto every preparation surface or maybe, as one friend puts it, they taste too much like dirt. Whatever the reason, the beet’s fusty, mineral flavour coupled with its deep ruby purple hue should not be disregarded. Too often people have been introduced to beets by tasting a soggy, highly acidic, pickled variety that comes out of a jar, or worse, a can. If the beets are too large when harvested, they are woody and fibrous and no amount of cooking can correct for maturity. Freshly picked, young (less than three inches in diameter) beetroot are sweetly earthy and offer a vibrant, not to mention healthy, addition to dinner plates.

Beetroot are thought to have originated in the Mediterranean region but are now cultivated worldwide. There are different varieties of beets; the sugar beet is grown for sugar production, the mangel wurzel for fodder and the garden beet, Beta Vulgaris , as a vegetable and as a food colouring. The word Beta is the second letter of the Greek alphabet, which the round bulbous root resembles, but the word beet comes from the French word for beast, "bete", as the vegetable bleeds like an animal when it is cut. Vulgaris means "common".

The beet’s brightly-coloured red pigment, called betanin, has been used to help treat cancer. Specific anti-carcinogens that are bound to the pigment increase cell respiration. The beet root also has a high folate content and contains potassium, manganese and iron. Beet greens are also edible and contain calcium, iron and beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant. Greens can be prepared and eaten in much the same way as spinach – when they are very young, beet greens can be added raw to salads.

To help clean up the pink stains on hands and cutting boards when working with beets, use a simple scrubbing of salt with a wet abrasive cloth or, alternatively, wear rubber gloves. Not all beets bleed crimson however; Beta Vulgaris appears as hues of white, pink, purple, golden, and even as candy cane-like concentric circles of pink and white. It is an Italian heirloom beet with a mellow, sweet flavour called the Chioggia. More examples of beet names are Ruby Queen, Warrior and Gladiator – Tom Robbins is right, beets are serious.

When choosing beets, choose bulbs that are uniform in size so that they will cook at the same rate. Small to medium sized beets will be sweeter than larger ones. Make sure that the skins are not nicked but are smooth and firm – breaks in the skin allow nutrients to escape when being cooked. If the greens are attached they should be shiny and crisp, not wilted. Remove the greens as soon as you get home as the nutrients are drawn out of the root by the greens. Cut the stems off about an inch from the root, leaving the rootlets, or tails, in place. They may be stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for three weeks. Wash them well without piercing their skins before cooking. The skins may be eaten but can be bitter. If you prefer to remove them, the skins will slip off easily after cooking.

Beets may be baked, roasted, boiled, micro-waved, steamed or eaten raw if grated. They may be eaten hot or cold. The natural sweetness of the vegetable is best preserved by roasting, as boiling or steaming will leach out some of the nutrients and sugar. Roast beets with a thin coat of canola oil in a hot oven – 500 degrees – for 30 to 40 minutes or until the tip of a sharp knife will slip easily into them but they remain firm. Larger beets will take a longer time to cook. When they are cool enough to handle, the skins should peel off easily.

To boil beets, cover them with cold water and bring to the boil. Simmer over medium heat for 20 to 60 minutes. The length of time depends on the size of the bulbs. Plunge the cooked beets into ice water and, when cool enough to handle, slip off the skins.

Beetroot pairs well with a variety of different ingredients, most notably with orange, lemon and vinegar. They are lovely with walnuts, feta and blue cheeses and cream, as well as parsley, tarragon, dill and mustard. Pickled beets are a real treat when home made and are delicious on sandwiches. In Australia, pickled beetroot is a notable and worthy topping for a hamburger.

The following recipe is quite simple and makes a stunning presentation. It also tastes fantastic when paired with pork, ham or duck. It comes from The Silver Palate Cookbook by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins. I have made this puree with apple cider vinegar and strawberry vinegar with similarly delicious results.

Beet and Apple Puree

• 5 medium-size beets (about 2 pounds)

• 2 tablespoons salt

• 8 tablespoons (1 stick) sweet butter

• 1 cup finely chopped yellow onions

• 4 tart apples (about one and a half pounds)

• 1 tablespoon granulated sugar

• half teaspoon salt

• quarter cup raspberry vinegar

• chopped fresh dill (optional)

1. Trim away all but 1 inch of green tops from the beets, leaving skins and roots; scrub well. Cover beets with cold water in a large pot, add 2 tablespoons salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, until beets are tender, about 40 minutes to an hour. Add additional water if necessary to ensure that the beets remain covered. Drain the beets as they are done, cool slightly, and slip off tops, skins, and roots.

2. Melt the butter in a medium-sized saucepan. Add the onions and cook, covered, over medium heat until tender and lightly coloured, about 25 minutes.

3. Peel, core, and chop the apples and add them to the onions. Add sugar, salt and raspberry vinegar, and simmer, uncovered, for 15 to 20 minutes, or until apples and onions are very tender.

4. Transfer apple mixture to the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade, or use a food mill. Chop the beets and add them to the bowl. Process until smooth.

5. Return puree to the saucepan and reheat, stirring constantly. Taste and correct seasoning. Serve immediately, or set aside to cool to room temperature, cover, chill, and serve very cold. Makes 6 portions.