Beetroot, sliced, pickled and canned, was once the staple of the Kiwi summer picnic table, and for many it may still be. But now, this once home garden stalwart has become the super-veg “par excellence” of the decade. If you’re to believe everything you read, the magenta-coloured bulb can help you run faster, lower your blood pressure, help prevent dementia, help you hold your breath under water and improve the libido — of both sexes.
What more could you want in a vegetable? Well, apparently, we want size-specific beets and speed, as beetroot takes too long to cook — really, people?! Beetroot now comes conveniently cooked and packed ready for you to slice or dice and tuck in to. The downside is the cost — cooked and packaged it’s four to five times the price of raw beetroot per kilogram.
As for size, we, the consumers, believe smaller is sweeter, and thus our options are usually confined to beets around 50mm-75mm in diameter. But that’s not the case. Larger beets just require longer cooking and of all the vegetables out there, beetroot is one of the easiest to cook — just put on rack in oven, bake. For those truly living life on a treadmill, there are many other ways to get your beetroot fix via juice, shots, powders and even chips.
Beetroot’s new-found fame is attributed to the compound betacyanin, which gives the glorious magenta colour. Eaten freshly grated or cooked, beetroot is rich in fibre, something not obtainable in the processed form.
Also, adding vibrancy to the classic red variant is Chioggia or Candy Cane Beetroot, flaunting its flesh with alternate concentric circles of magenta and pale pink to white rings. Golden Beets are a rich, canary-gold coloured flesh. For the home grower, there’s even a white beetroot.
Sales of beetroot have stormed ahead in recent years. Up until 2014 its production did not rate a mention in NZ Horticulture’s annual report. As its own category, beetroot appears in 2014 when we grew 16,000 tonnes. By 2106 that figure was 30,000 tonnes. We grow more beetroot than kumara, capsicums or beans.
When cooking, never peel, cut the root end, or cut the stalks closer than 5-7 cm to the bulb. To do any of these will cause the beets to bleed and lose both flavour and the magic betacyanin, which will be better retained in baked beetroot rather than boiled. Even better, eat it raw, grated and included in salads and sandwiches.
Baked beets have the most intense flavour but require double the cooking time of other root vegetables. Oil lightly, sprinkle with salt, place on a baking paper-lined tray and bake in a moderate oven for about 1 ½ - 2 hours.
Candy Cane beetroot is the exception, cooking in half the time of the standard varieties. Baked and left unpeeled until required, beets can be stored most successfully in the refrigerator in a sealed container for a good week to 10 days. Peel before serving.
When possible, I buy beetroot with the leaves on as they are packed with vitamin A, have a delicate spinach-like taste and can be added to a mixed leaf salad or cooked with spinach or silverbeet in a knob of butter with a gilding of nutmeg — delicious.
Beetroot chips keep company with other snack foods now, but making them is way cheaper than buying them, and they taste fresher. Wash, slice 3-4mm thick, spray with oil, place on a baking paper-lined tray and bake in a moderately hot oven for 20-30 minutes, turning once, until firm. Alternatively, ultra-thin slices can be deep fried, dusted with a seasoned salt mix and used as a garnish — perfect with a creamy spaghetti dish or grilled chicken or duck breast.