The darkest root

Carrot harvest

I usually grow at least one whole bed of root vegetables at the allotment. Carrots, parsnips and beetroot are my staples, but I have toyed with swedes, celeriac and turnips, although with limited success, so always return to the first three. Carrots haven’t always been good on the heavy local clay, but a fellow plotholder who always has superb rows of huge carrots suggested incorporating some sand in the soil and that appears to have made all the difference! This year’s carrot crop is a great improvement and I’m actually in a position to store some for the winter. Even the slugs have steered clear this season: whether they’re averse to the gritty sand on their slimy skins or have been attracted elsewhere, I’m not sure – but I’m certainly not complaining! Even the dreaded carrot root fly haven’t made an appearance this year. Admittedly, some of the carrots were the resistant Flyaway variety, but by no means all. Homegrown carrots have such a superb taste, it’s so satisfying when they do well.

Parsnips usually do extremely well for me, but this year I’ve had a complete crop failure. They take so long to germinate, that by the time you realise they haven’t appeared, it’s often too late to do anything about it. I used fresh seed, so have no idea what went wrong this time. It happens….

Beetroot on the other hand, always do well – and this year was no exception. I love beetroot simply roasted individually, wrapped in foil, in a hot oven at 200°C / 400°F / Gas 6, then served warm or cold with a salad. I often cook a batch, sprinkle with balsamic vinegar, and store in the fridge for a good week or so. Recently, I was inspired to find a recipe for beetroot risotto, as much for its dark and sultry looks as anything else. After much researching, I couldn’t find exactly what I had in mind, so resorted to adapting a Diana Henry recipe that looked promising. The result was divine – a deep red plateful topped with creamy white cheese. So good.

Beetroot Risotto – serves 1

Beetroot risotto

25ml butter
1 small red onion, chopped
1 leek, finely sliced
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
50g Arborio rice
100g fresh beetroot, grated
450 ml fresh vegetable stock (or use chicken if you prefer), hot
75 ml Martini Rosso (or use red wine)
few sprigs fresh thyme
2 tbsp Pecorino cheese (or Parmesan), grated
50g Lancashire cheese (or Wensleydale, feta or goat’s cheese!)
Dill to garnish

Heat the butter in a frying pan and cook the chopped red onion, leek and garlic gently until tender, but not brown – about 10 minutes. Add the rice and thyme leaves, then stir to coat thoroughly. Add the grated beetroot (use disposable gloves to grate, or peel and use a food processor!) and cook for another few minutes. Pour in the Martini Rosso or red wine and allow it to bubble up and reduce slightly. Then start adding the hot stock, one ladle at a time, waiting for it to be absorbed each time before adding the next. Stir constantly and start testing the rice after 20 minutes or so to see if it is tender, but with a slight bite. Add the grated Pecorino, chopped dill and season to taste. Serve in bowls garnished with crumbled or grated Lancashire cheese (or the cheese of your choice – a chalky white cheese is the best foil for the dark earthiness of the beetroot) and more dill, if you have it. Enjoy!

This serves just one, but you can multiply according to how many you’re serving. You could also add cubes of roasted beetroot to garnish for maximum effect.

Another favourite beetroot concoction involves throwing together a Puy lentil salad with beetroot and feta or goat’s cheese. The sweet earthiness of the beetroot is the ideal complement to the smoky lentils and the chalky cheese sets both off to perfection. Sometimes I add carrots or squash too to provide an orange contrast, and even a few cooked green beans if I have any. I like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s way of cooking the lentils, although I find they don’t take quite as long to cook as he suggests.

Beetroot & Puy Lentil Salad with Feta – serves 4-6

Beetroot and lentil salad

250g Puy lentils
Vegetable stock or water
1 bay leaf
Few sprigs thyme
2 garlic cloves, crushed
Parsley sprigs
Juice of a lemon
Seasoning
4-6 beetroot
4 carrots (optional)
100g butternut squash (optional)
Olive oil
Balsamic vinegar
100g goat’s cheese or feta
Dill to garnish

Wash the beetroots, cutting off the top and tail, then wrap individually in foil, before roasting in a hot oven at 200°C / 400°F / Gas 6. If serving squash and/or carrot as well, cut into chunky cubes or barrel shapes, sprinkle with olive oil, chopped garlic, seasoning and thyme leaves, then roast in an open dish at the same time as the beetroot, although they will probably only need 30-40 minutes. When tender, remove from the oven and cool. The beetroot skins should come off easily when cool, and the beetroot can then be cubed.

Meanwhile put the lentils in a pan, cover with plenty of water, bring to the boil, simmer for just one minute, then drain. Return to the pan and just cover with more water or vegetable stock if you have it. Add the bay leaf, sprigs of thyme, garlic and parsley. Bring back to a simmer and cook gently for about 20 minutes, until just tender. Drain the lentils, and discard the herbs. Dress with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice, then season.

Serve the lentils lukewarm or cold with the roasted vegetables, more olive oil if required and a dash of balsamic vinegar. Garnish with dill and cubes of goat’s cheese or feta. The flavour gets even better as it sits, so don’t worry if you have leftovers for the next day…

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