Versatile and colourful beetroot is fast becoming a fashionable winter winner, writes Justin Newcombe.
Everywhere I turn in summer the garden gives me treat after treat, and the poor old beet doesn't get a look in. But it's a different story come winter, when a few colourful beets can turn a pretty beige platter into something a whole lot more lively.
Beetroot used to be sliced with corrugated edges. My first beetroot memory was of tasting it in a burger, unnaturally fused between a cheese slice and six-week-old grill fat. These days, with the popular use of roast veges in warm salads, the beet is fast becoming a fashionable winter winner.
The leaves of young beets can be eaten fresh or taken for a quick spin in a pan and served warm. The ruby-coloured juice can even be used as a dye (as many of us can testify to after returning home with a maroon smudge down our front from a stray lunchtime beet).
The ancient Greeks ignored the root but were into beet foliage before they got a better offer from spinach. No matter, the Romans soon picked up the beet and quickly realised its magic lay in its root. They cultivated beets as a medicinal herb using the root juice to cure blood ailments, the foliage to dress battle wounds and both as an unsuccessful cure-all for venereal disease.
Although they pushed their luck with the last one, they hit the nail on the head with the first use.
Beetroot juice reduces blood pressure and contains high levels of magnesium, sodium, potassium and vitamin C, and betaine which reduce cardiovascular disease. It operates as a muscle relaxant. As muscles relax, blood flow improves and if you've had a hard night or a long lunch, you may want to consider 500ml of beetroot juice as a little pick-me-up. It will break down fatty deposits on your liver which are attributed to alcohol.
In 1747 beetroot history took a new turn when Prussian scientist Andreas Magraf isolated the sugar component of the beet. At the time, beets were used as cattle fodder. The sugar or energy content of a beet was 1 per cent to 2 per cent. Andreas realised if he could get the sugar content up, beets would be a more efficient food for Prussia's livestock. Andreas dramatically improved the sugar content by breeding a new beet with a sugar content of six per cent. Andreas gave this sugary monster the incredibly futuristic science-y name, Mangawurzel.
The mangle or sugar-beet as we know it today is still propagated as a fodder crop as well as for the production of bio fuel, and is set to become an important part of our post-oil future.
In the meantime you can enjoy the sweet, colourful, and as it turns out, healthy pleasures of the foliage and root this winter.
Propagation is easy. Grow beets from seed in punnets or trays then plant into a garden bed with reasonably depleted nitrogen (after tomatoes or corn is good).
Keep beets well-watered and pick the tops before the heart-shaped leaves get too big. Harvest them before they get woody.
3 of the best: up-cycled retainers
Light, strong, abundant and they all come in a regular size. Once the tyres are planted you have a beautiful green wall.
Large concrete pieces
These can be put together randomly or cut to fit. Again any gaps can be planted to take away the industrial edge.
The baskets might have to be bought new, but you can fill them with anything larger than the mesh and create a large-scale, functioning retaining system. Saves taking all that old broken concrete to the dump.