Many people are averse to beetroot having only experienced crinkle-cut slices steeped in overpowering vinegar. This is a shame because fresh beetroot has much to commend it in terms of flavour (sweet, slightly earthy), texture (smooth and velvety) and colour (dark red/purple, or an appealingly lurid pink when combined with cream or yoghurt).
These attributes make it a key ingredient in many fabulous salads (see PICK OF THE RECIPES). And if you haven't tried fresh beetroot juice you may be pleasantly surprised at how subtle it is, particularly when offset with a sharper ingredient such as orange or apple.
Beetroot evolved from wild seabeet which is a native of coastlines from India to Britain. Two thousand years ago, prior to being modified by cultivation techniques, beetroot had a carrot-shaped root and only the leaves were eaten (the small root was used for medicinal purposes by ancient Greeks and Romans). The familiar rounded root variety was developed around the sixteenth century and gained widespread popularity in Europe a couple of hundred years later.
Today beetroot is common throughout much of Europe, and is used extensively in Scandinavian, Eastern European and Russian cuisine.
The beetroot plant, Beta vulgaris, has deep tap roots and can grow in a variety of soil conditions. Other members of the genus include chard, sugar beet, spinach and samphire. The red variety is dominant but golden and white beetroot is grown on a smaller scale.
Beetroot should be firm with a smooth, undamaged surface. Smaller roots are more tender - avoid any larger than about 6cm in diameter as they may have tough, woody cores.
If you want to use the leaves they should be crisp, fresh looking and not too long or thick (if you don't, it doesn't matter too much if they're a bit limp as they deteriorate much more quickly than the root).
Cut off the leaves and store in an unsealed plastic bag in the fridge. The leaves should be used within a day or two but the root will keep for a couple of weeks.
Tender baby roots can be grated raw in salads. Mature beetroot can be boiled (better for smaller, younger beetroot) or wrapped in foil and baked (better for larger, older roots).
To preserve the beetroot's colour and nutrients, rinse and brush clean but do not remove the skin or root until after cooking. Cook until a skewer easily penetrates to the core (anything from 30 minutes to 2 hours boiling or 1½ to 2½ hours baking at 180°C). You may want to wear rubber gloves when cutting and handling beetroot as the pigmentation leaves a pretty stubborn stain.
The leaves can be cooked like spinach - steam uncovered in a pan with a small amount of boiling water (around 1cm depth).
Favours in the Beetroot Fields is one of the tracks on the great album The Decline of British Sea Power, by British Sea Power.
Extensive information on beetroot, and some other interesting stuff, can be found on this website