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Beta vulgaris has been cultivated for around 3000 years and were grown in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, according to an Assyrian text.

Thank God for beetroot

Having paid testament to onions last year, here Jack Rayner covers an ingredient disliked by Barack Obama and not used by chefs to its full potential
"In the Middle Ages, beetroots were used medicinally in a variety of applications, particularly for blood- and digestion-related ailments."

Around this time last year, I wrote a gushing and sycophantic piece for OXcountry about onions, and why, despite their universality, they are often overlooked and reduced to nothingness in home kitchens and on restaurant menus alike.

This time, the spotlight is being placed proudly and firmly on the similarly glorious and underappreciated beetroot.

The root of Beta vulgaris is a much-maligned vegetable, and in my opinion, beetroot’s reputation as a robust but earthy, wellmeaning but ultimately unexciting ingredient (or as a quirky 70s throwback in its pickled, crinkle-cut form) is well overdue a cultural shift. In the modern era of whole roasted cauliflowers appearing on Michelin-starred menus and the focal point of a meal veering away from meat cuts and towards previously overlooked plant life, why are chefs not utilising this gorgeous purple taproot to its full potential?

Barack Obama doesn’t like beetroot, telling the Associated Press in 2008 that he “always avoids eating them” and blacklisted them from growth in the White House’s vegetable garden (but he did find space for 3 varieties of lettuce, 2 types of peas, fennel and rhubarb). The president is certainly entitled to his opinion, but his rejection of beetroot could prove a diplomatic nightmare in Ukraine, where the delicious, sharp beetroot soup borscht is ubiquitous. In South India beetroot is also very commonly used in poriyal, a sautéed dish with shredded vegetables and spices, and the Italians have been eating barbabietole properly for years – slow roasted and cut into wedges, served with salt, pepper and balsamic vinegar. Stunning.

Beta vulgaris has been cultivated for around 3000 years and were grown in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, according to an Assyrian text. As recently as 1200AD, the actual shape of the root was completely different to today (much longer and thinner) and the plant tended to be used for its leaves far more than its root. In the Middle Ages, beetroots were used medicinally in a variety of applications, particularly for blood- and digestion-related ailments. Indeed, modern research has indicated that beetroot juice can reduce blood pressure in those with hypertension, so may genuinely effect the mechanisms of some cardiovascular diseases. So, why not let beetroot take centre stage in your late summer cooking – these honey and balsamic ones below make a gorgeous sweet-sharp accompaniment to steak and goat’s cheese.

Beetroot recipe

4-5 large cooked beetroot
(vac-packed ones are fine)
Balsamic vinegar
Clear honey
Olive oil
Handful of fresh thyme
Salt & pepper

Method

Preheat the oven to 200C. Cut each beetroot into quarters and spread across a large roasting tin. Mix together 3 tablespoons of all the liquid ingredients along with the thyme, pour evenly over the beetroot then toss so all the beetroot is coated in the dressing. Roast for 25 mins until the beetroot is sticky and glazed and serve.

 

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