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Of all the vegetables in Australia, I don't think there's one that is more underrated than beetroot. More recently it's been pronounced as a superfood, with that incredible magenta colour hiding antioxidants such as betacyanin, giving credence to all the historic references of beetroot's health-giving properties. But to promote increased beetroot consumption on health grounds alone is to seriously sell this vegetable short. With an amazing earthy sweetness, bold flavour and colour, just promise me if you ever serve it on a hamburger it will be grated and raw…
Varieties and Growing Tips
Two varieties that grow well in our cooler climate include Bulls Blood and Boltardy. If you're not one to usually grow from seed, try beetroot. It's a good vegetable to start with as the seeds are large and germination is quite reliable. Several varieties are also available in a seed tape product helping you to get the spacing spot on.
Beetroot likes a pH of about 6.5. Any higher than 7.0 and the soil alkalinity starts to prevent the uptake of boron which is essential for the edible root development. Caution also needs to be taken with soils too high in nitrogen as you'll end up with wonderful leafy growth but small beets! Please don't think this all has to be a complicated process, as once your garden is established it just becomes part of the natural flow. Simply plant beetroot after a heavy feeding crop such as cabbage, lettuce or asian greens. This way those previous crops will have taken up large amounts of the nitrogen in the soil. Simply add some well rotted compost and water once established with a seaweed based liquid fertiliser. If you're starting in fresh soil, avoid adding large amounts of high nitrogen fertiliser such as poultry manures (especially pigeon) instead favouring compost, worm juice and liquid seaweed products.
The beetroot seeds themselves can lead to some confusion as they are actually a cluster of seeds all stuck together (kind of). What you'll find is that you'll get several seedlings growing in the spot where you diligently only planted one seed. Treat this as a gift from nature and when big enough to pinch with your finger, remove the weaker seedlings (leaving the most vigorous) and use them as a micro green in the kitchen. If this backyard Darwinism isn't your cup of tea, you can try replanting - but it's very difficult not to damage the very fine taproot while they're so young. Nature can be cruel folks.
As the beetroot grow you'll see the root become more visible. This is actually pretty handy as you can see how big your beetroot are growing, so fight the urge to hill soil around them as you would with leeks etc. Leaves can also be picked on younger beetroot and added to salads. Just take a few from each plant as you don't want to slow the growth by removing the plants' energy source!
Beyond tinned beetroot (sigh)
While traveling in Eastern Europe a decade ago I was amazed at how much beetroot was used in local cuisines. At Polish bar mleczny (direct translation is 'milk bars' - but more accurately described as vegetarian cafeterias) salads made from boiled grated beetroot and beetroot soup were staples.
The latter in Poland is called barszcz and I was reliably informed by a local that Polish 'borscht' recipes came from the Ukraine not Russia. You know I'd never buy a Polish-made car, but I'm pretty sure no-one makes better soup. The idea of sweating a few onions, adding some chopped beetroot and stock and creating a soup in an hour would be laughed at. Even vegetarian soups such as barszcz start with pork of some sort, creating the stock in situ. Always made the day before consuming there is plenty of time for flavour to develop depth.
Beetroot is also fantastic grated raw. I first tried this at Wholefoods Cafe in Geelong back in the 1990s where they added it as a standard to their salad sandwiches and awesome tofu burgers. The Poles also make a cooked and grated beetroot condiment which when mixed with horseradish becomes "cwikla z chrzanem" - check out how to do that below. It also goes wonderfully with the pierogi I made a little while back when discussing potatoes.
Another recipe that we collectively remain indebted to Stephanie Alexander for is chocolate and beetroot muffins. I've modified the recipe slightly using olive oil instead of vegetable oil for nutritional reasons without noticing the taste coming through at all. I mean chocolate and beetroot - what hope did the olive oil have?
Chocolate and Beetroot Muffins
60g organic butter, softened
1 large beetroot, peeled and grated (250g) A food processor makes this a whole lot easier
175g Plain Flour
1 tps baking powder
2 tbs organic cocoa
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup local olive oil
1/4 castor sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar (well packed)
12 squares dark chocolate or milk with minimum 30% cocoa
1. Pre-heat the oven to 180C and grease a 12 hole muffin tray.
2. Sift the flour, baking powder and cocoa into a large mixing bowl and set aside.
3. Lightly mix the eggs and milk together and set aside.
4. In a bowl or mixer process the butter, oil and 2 types of sugar until nice and creamy. Gradually add the milk and egg mixture and process until combined.
5. Add the wet batter to the flour mix and fold together. Stir in the beetroot, until well combined.
6. Spoon the mixture evenly into the holes and press a square of chocolate well into the centre each muffin.
Cooking time is about 20minutes depending on your oven type. The tops should be springy but the centre will remain a lot more moist than normal muffins due to the beetroot, so be careful not to mistake this for them being underdone.
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