It’s right on trend, it’s getting great press, and it’s appearing on a plate near you. It’s beetroot. And, as the food magazines and fashionable chefs will tell you, it’s been rediscovered.
Not so very long ago, for many of us, beetroot came, pickled and sliced, from a tin, and stained our sandwiches and salads. The Russians knew better; their famous borscht owed its distinctive colouring, and some of its flavour, to beetroot – more about that later.
Now, almost everywhere you look, this humble root vegetable (Beta vulgaris) is incorporated into haute cuisine and family fare. And why not?
Benefits of beetroot?
The many types of beet include the more common garden beet, or red beet, but also the white and golden varieties. Sugar beet, an alternative source of commercially produced sugar, is a cultivar of the same species.
Beet juice has a variety of uses, and not all of them are food related. Did you know, for example, that ladies in the 18th century, and probably earlier, used beetroot juice to stain their lips, for a luscious, alluring pout, and applied dried and powdered beetroot as cheek rouge? It was certainly a popular option during the 1930s and 1940s, when Depression, and war, meant that cosmetics were scarce and expensive.
Considering the deep crimson hue of the most common varieties of beetroot, it’s not surprising that it is also used as a food dye in many commercial products – especially as it is both safe and natural.
Mostly though, the beet is a versatile food. It’s an ancient species, and for centuries has been regarded as a healthy addition to the diet. The ancient Romans didn’t value the tuber primarily as a food, because it was originally a rather thin and unappetising root. There is evidence they used it as medicine, for fever and constipation, and also as an aphrodisiac. They grew the plant mainly for its leaves, which they ate both cooked and raw.
Beet greens are popular salad ingredients in the modern diet. They are easily recognised by their deep green leaves, with red stalks and veins. While many still discard them, they are in fact even more nutritious than the beetroot that grows beneath them. Beet leaves or greens provide 15% of the daily requirement of iron in a one-cup serve, and are excellent sources of calcium and magnesium. They rank higher than most dark green leafy vegetables (DGLVs), which are so vital for good health.
The tuberous beetroot we are familiar with was developed as a food much later – probably in the 16th century – and was originally shaped more like a parsnip. Various cultivars eventually produced the bulbous vegetable we know today, in a range of colours.
It’s good for you
Slight variations aside, beetroot contains over 85% water, a little less than 2% protein, and approximately 10% carbohydrate, mostly in the form of sugars and soluble fibre. It is extremely low in fat, and has useful amounts of Vitamin B and C. Beetroot is particularly high in folates, and 100 grams provides just over 100 micrograms of folic acid and Vitamin B9, which is about 27% of the recommended daily intake (400 micrograms). Folates are generally recommended as part of a healthy diet, to help cardiovascular function.
Recent research and some trial studies suggest that nitrates, which are found in beetroot, can reduce hypertension (high blood pressure) and increase muscle strength. Despite some wild claims, it has not been shown, however, that regular consumption of beetroot juice can prevent heart disease. Other compounds found in beetroot are often associated with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Beets are easily steamed, or boiled, often in salted water. Peel them after cooking – to preserve the colour, and to make the job easier. They can also be scrubbed, lightly coated with oil, salt and pepper, and roasted. Pickled beets are also very popular.
- Boiled or roasted beets are delicious tossed with oil, herbs and seasoning (and maybe some balsamic vinegar)
- Look up a recipe for . There are endless variations – meat, fish or vegetarian; hot or cold
- Blend beetroot with potatoes, butter, and crème fraîche; then season to taste for perfect pink mash
- Warm beets partner well with goat’s cheese, and spinach. Use a mild citrus or balsamic dressing and sprinkle the dish with toasted pine nuts, walnuts, or sunflower seeds.
Caramelised beetroot and onion jam, cooked up with brown sugar and balsamic vinegar, is a superb accompaniment to hot or cold meat, poultry and fish.
And yes, you can use beetroot in desserts, too.
- In any recipe that calls for apples or pears, you can substitute a quarter to a half of the amount with beetroot.
- Beetroot adds rich colouring to puddings and custards, or even the frosting on a cake.
- It also gives a healthy boost to your favourite fruit smoothies.
The possibilities are endless. Unbeetable really.