Let's get the (mis)identification issue out of the way up front. Beetroot are beets, one and the same. Beetroot are the hypocotyl, or swollen lower stem of the Beta vulgaris plant, with the lower portion consisting of the root. However, the entire plant, including stems and leaves are not only edible, but also sweetly delicious.
The plant is native to a wide area of Eurasia, stretching from India right across continental Europe. It has been eaten in those areas for literally thousands of years. Beginning sometime in the middle of the second millennium only the leaves of the plant were consumed and it was the use of a white variety for the production of sugar in the 18th century that people were reminded of beetroot itself as an edible vegetable.
As you would expect with its history in sugar production, beetroot is quite high in sugar content. In fact at 8 % it is one of the most sugar dense of all vegetables. When you slice through a beetroot, you will notice a series of concentric layers, somewhat resembling a bisected tree trunk. These rings are alternating layers of storage and vascular tissue that are highlighted in a wonderful Italian variety called chioggia, which has vivid white and magenta variegation.
Other interesting variations include albina vereduna, a white Dutch variety, golden beetroot, smaller and even sweeter than the original with an mesmerizing orange, gold colour and baby beetroot, which are popular with restaurants because they can be served whole when mature.
When cooking beetroot, it is important to remember a couple of points. Always prepare beetroot separately from any other ingredients as it has the ability to colour taint absolutely all that comes into contact. This is why food author Jane Grigson referred to beetroot as "the bossy vegetable" If you are peeling or grating beetroot it is advisable to wear gloves as the colour will stain you hands most alarmingly. I have even endured small cuts while preparing beetroot that have turned into temporary tattoos. If colour is all important, it is best to cook your beetroot whole as peeling and cutting of the root will result in the pigment leaking during cooking.
Believe it or not, a slice of beetroot is considered de rigueur on hamburgers in Australia, but if that sounds too bizzare, try one of the following simple recipes.
6 beetroot (beets), peeled and grated
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup balsamic vinegar
½ cup dry sherry
Zest (grated peel) of 1 orange
1 cinnamon stick
Freshly ground black pepper
Pour all the ingredients into a large heavy-based pot that is non-reactive, i.e. not aluminium. Bring gently to a low heat and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated (about 45 minutes to an hour), stirring occasionally. Pack into sterilized jars and store in the refrigerator for several months. Serve as part of an antipasto platter or maybe with some feta cheese and rocket for a yummy vegetarian sandwich.
Sea salt roasted beetroot
This method of cooking beetroot leaves the skin intact, thus retaining their vivid colour. They are roasted on a bed of sea salt, which may sound overpowering, but the salt gently seeps through the skin during cooking, leaving the whole beetroot beautifully seasoned. If you can't get sea salt or kosher salt, try another recipe as table salt will kill the dish.
6 small to medium beetroot
125 gm (1/4 lb) sea salt
Trim the leaves and stems to within 1 cm of the beetroot. If they have a long root attached, trim as well. Spread the salt evenly on the base of a roasting tray. Place the beetroot on top, with the salt acting as a sturdy base and roast in a preheated 200°C (390°F) oven. Their size will dictate how long the beetroot will take to cook. Test after 40 minute by gently inserting a skewer. If it easily penetrates to the centre then they are done.
Serve with strong flavours, like roasted beef, lamb or even kangaroo and maybe the beetroot leaves steamed and tossed in olive oil, lemon and pepper.