Beetroot is not just for burgers – it’s easy to grow, comes in all kinds of colours, and can even be baked into a moist chocolate cake.
The beetroot is a melancholy vegetable, Tom Robbins wrote in his novel Jitterbug Perfume. What was he thinking? There’s a lot to love about these earthy little nuggets of goodness, apart from the way they stain the hands of cooks, and can occasionally turn your pee an alarming shade of pink if you overindulge.
In the days before blusher and lipstick, 19th century ladies used beetroot to give themselves a rosy glow, and in ancient times beetroot had a reputation as an aphrodisiac – it appears in frescoes on the walls of a Pompeii brothel. Perhaps it’s true that beetroot can pep you up, as scientists now know that it contains betalains, which make it red, and are being investigated for possible antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
Beetroot is quick and easy to grow, taking only eight weeks to be ready to harvest under ideal conditions. It is happiest with decent, friable soil enriched with compost. Some people give the tough, knobbly little seeds a soak in water to speed germination. If you don’t like too much of an earthy taste, pick them when they’re baby-sized. You can also harvest the leaves when they’re young or even grow beetroot leaves as a microgreen.
While we’re most familiar with the round, dark red beetroot that comes in tins and is at home in burgers, gardeners can have fun growing more exotic varieties, from white albino beetroot to golden-coloured and even the red and white striped Chioggia variety. Packets containing seeds of a few different varieties allow you to grow several types at once.
How to use them? They’re great raw or roasted in salads. Try a roasted beetroot salad with feta, walnuts, rocket and a balsamic dressing. Or grate raw beetroot and carrot together with herbs, spring onions, pumpkin seeds and a lemon dressing. The rich colour of roasted beetroot hummus will add a bright spot to a pre-dinner platter (just add a little roasted beetroot to your usual hummus recipe and whizz together). You can also bake with it – there are heaps of recipes for chocolate and beetroot cake online.