The restaurant business is so highly competitive nowadays that no cook, not even those with three Michelin stars, can afford to sit back and relax. That’s one of the reasons top chefs are always trying to do something different with everyday ingredients.
One of their specialities is rediscovering vegetables most of us no longer use. Several years ago some of Britain’s best cooks turned their attention to the spurned beetroot and in no time it was being served in trendy restaurants all over Europe.
When creative cooks take an ingredient like beetroot, shunned by many because it bleeds its rich crimson-purple colour over everything else on the plate, they never handle it in conventional ways. That means cooks at the top end of the market don’t do pickled beetroot or serve it plain boiled.
Heston Blumenthal, whose Fat Duck restaurant in Bray (Berkshire) is one of the world’s best, some years ago started to use beetroot. But Heston being Heston (that is, one of the most inventive of chefs) he used beetroot in his petits fours biscuits.
I came across beetroot crisps in Palma that were a delightful surprise. The cook had cut raw beetroot into tissue-thin slices and deep-fried them like potato crisps. Very simple but most effective.
At Toque (Calle Federico García Lorca 6.Tel:971-287068) cook-owner Claude Monti baked wedges of beetroot and served them with roast quail. Beetroot done like this, without any of its all-invading colour pouring out, was a revelation.
Beetroot is available all year round but its natural season started this month and will continue until May. So the coming winter and spring months are the best time to give it a try if it’s not already on your weekly shopping list.
Beetroot comes in a number of varieties: big and carrot-shaped, or flat and squat like a turnip. The colours range from purple to gold to white. The four main varieties are white beet, red beet, Swiss chard and mangel-wurzel.
You will seldom see white beets on sale here although there are plenty of them: they account for a third of the world’s sugar production. Red beet is the bulbous dark red variety we all know, and Swiss chard is cultivated for its leaves, which are more nutritious than the root. The mangel-wurzel variety is grown for animal fodder.
Beets are so nutritious they have superfood status. They are rich in fibre and potassium and are ideal for cleansing the liver. They enrich the blood and are an aid for those with skin problems, constipation and other digestive disorders.
The leaves have a high vitamin A content as well as good amounts of calcium, some iron, plus trace elements and vitamin C. They are a better source of iron than spinach.
But we mustn’t overindulge in the leaves because they are high in oxalic acid, which can be bad for the kidneys. And pickled beetroot always contains a great deal of salt.
When buying fresh beets, go for those with firm bulbs and a good head of green leaves. Small leaves of a bright green hue are ideal for adding to salads with other crisp greens.
The bigger more mature leaves can be added to a stir-fried dish with other veggies or can be sautéed on their own with chopped garlic to taste and a final dash of balsamic vinegar. Beetroot leaves done like that are more reminiscent of chard than spinach and pair nicely with some fish dishes and meats.
Try serving the sautéed leaves with a fried egg on top. You can also use the finely chopped sautéed leaves as an omelette filling or stir them into scrambled eggs.
A few years ago it wasn’t easy to find fresh beetroot but nowadays most of the bigger supermarkets stock it, as well as the Mercat d’Olivar and the Santa Catalina market.
Most of the fresh beetroot I see is very clean but it still needs a careful wash under running water. You will also come across beetroot that is peeled, boiled and in vacuum packs. These beets are usually smallish ones, which is great for certain recipes. They are a good convenience food because they save us from having to boil or otherwise cook our own. But serious cooks prefer to use raw beets.
When handling them raw it is extremely important to keep the skin intact. If you break it, even just a nick with your fingernail, the red dye will eventually come gushing out.
So don’t scrub them and don’t even rub them in a vigorous way. A slow gentle wash is what they need. Cut off the stems at least an inch above the beetroot, and never cut off the root. A mere trim will be enough.
The best way to pre-cook beetroot is to wrap them singly in tinfoil and bake them in a slow oven (150C), which will take 1-3 hours depending on the size. You should bake them when some other dish is being done.
The taste of beetroot when slowly baked like a potato is sensational, which is why some cooks prefer the baking method. A baked beetroot has a clean earthy taste with a delicious tinge of sweetness.
A quicker way is to wrap them in clingfilm and microwave on full for about eight minutes for two beetroot. You can also boil them whole, when the skins are perfectly intact, for 20-60 minutes, depending on their size and age. The older they are, the longer the cooking time. If you want to bake beets to serve with roast meat, toss peeled raw wedges in olive oil and a good sprinkling of fresh thyme. Leave them for at least 30 minutes and roast until tender.
Transfer the wedges to a frying pan, add a good splash of sweet sherry, red vermouth or madeira and reduce until the beetroot is glazed.
One of the best ways to eat beetroot is plain boiled, straight from the pot. Carefully rub off the skins, cut them into suitable sizes and serve with a sprinkling of Maldon salt flakes and perhaps a dash of mild wine vinegar to bring out their earthy sweet flavour. Small beets are best for this dish.
You should try freshly boiled beets cut into thickish slices and served with a vinaigrette of your choice. One made with a little horseradish sauce and a generous amount of finely chopped parsley is ideal. Sliced boiled beetroot added to sour cream, crème fraîche or Greek-style yoghurt makes a delicious salad.
A mustardy yoghurt dressing with a sprinkling of roasted cumin seeds is also worth trying. Sour cream and fresh or dried dill make another interesting combination.
A delectable beet salad to accompany roast or grilled duck can be made with radicchio, orange and walnuts. The flavours and contrasts of textures are memorable.
A simple hot-weather starter can be made with slices of freshly boiled beets topped with a spoonful of sour cream or thick Greek-style yoghurt speckled with salmon roe.
An unusual thick sauce for rare roast beef or a pink entrecôte is made by combining finely chopped boiled beetroot, anchovies, garlic, parsley and grated horseradish and enough olive oil to give your preferred consistency.
The amounts used depend entirely on personal taste, so experiment and see what gives you the best results. This mixture is also a good spread for toasted pita bread, Swedish crispbreads or Majorca’s Quely’s biscuits.
Many non-vegetarians haven’t realised that beets can be eaten raw in a salad. One possibility is to peel a beet (use a sharp knife because the skin can be rather tough) and grate it into a bowl. Add equal amounts of grated carrot and crisp apple and stir in a herby vinaigrette of your choice.
Although vegetables aren’t as cheap as they used to be, they are still a very good buy in Majorca — and they still have plenty of taste, which is more than you can say of veggies in some other European countries.
We should be making better use of this source of taste and nourishment by giving vegetables a more prominent spot on our daily menus. Many of us, especially Britons and Americans, are inclined to think of vegetables only as something that goes on the same plate as meat. But we should be like the French and have our vegetables as a course on their own, when their taste and texture can be fully appreciated.
That means we have to get away from boiled veggies (even when they’ve been disguised with a little melted butter and a sprinkling of chopped parsley) and look for more imaginative ways of serving them. One good way of upgrading vegetables and making them a dish in their own right is to serve them as a thick purée. A delicate purée, full of flavour and piping hot, adds a touch of elegance to a winter meal.
Vegetables that have been steamed, boiled, or baked can be puréed an then enriched by the addition of cream, butter and eggs as well as seasonings of all kinds.
When making purées as a separate course, forget about your blender or food processor because they turn vegetables into baby food, a pap completely lacking in texture. A good vegetable purée needs texture and the best way to get it is to mash your veggies with a heavy fork.
Of the root vegetables, the one we are most likely to ignore is the parsnip, called chirivía in Spanish. To make a purée with a memorable flavour you will need: 800 grs of parsnips, two large potatoes, half breakfast cup of hot cream, 6 tbsps butter, 1 tbsp of ground ginger, salt and pepper to taste, 1 tbsp finely chopped parsley.
Peel the parsnips and cut into one-inch pieces. Peel the potatoes and cut into smallish wedges. Cook together in salted water until they are soft. Drain the vegetables and mash with a fork in the saucepan, over a low heat.
Add the hot cream, the butter, the ginger and salt and pepper to taste. Stir constantly while the butter melts and becomes amalgamated with the other ingredients. Transfer to a hot earthenware serving dish and sprinkle the surface with the chopped parsley. Serve immediately.
A baked potato purée is best when served in the potato skins. You will need: 4 large baking potatoes, half breakfast cup of hot cream, 6 tbsps butter, 2 egg yolks, 3 tbsps snipped chives, 3 tbsps melted butter, salt and pepper to taste.
Scrub the potatoes, prick them lightly with the point of a knife and baked them in a preheated hot oven until they are soft. This will take about an hour, so ideally bake them when some other dish is in the oven.
Halve the potatoes lengthways, carefully scoop out the flesh into a bowl so that the skins don’t break. Reserve the six best skins.
Mash the potatoes in the bowl with a fork and add the hot cream, 6 tbsps of butter, egg yolks, snipped chives plus salt and pepper to taste. Beat this mixture with the fork until everything is well combined and divide the purée between the six reserved skins.
Transfer the stuffed potato skins to a buttered oven dish big enough to take them in a single layer. Drizzle the tops with the melted butter and bake in a preheated oven for 15 minutes or until they are lightly browned.
We’ll be doing more root vegetable purées during the coming winter and the general idea, as you will see, is to have a purée with texture and packed with flavour that comes from the herbs and spices you like best.