SHEDNOTES 75: A Filofacts on BEETROOT

The Shed is clearly not as immune to the zeitgeist as it likes to think and was developing a hankering to grow beetroot when the Telegraph of 28.2.15 published a guide by James Wong, botanist and author of Grow For Flavour.
The following extracts are to be filed to The Filofacts – https://hack4hire.wordpress.com/category/the-filofacts/
Wong said:
Beets like a rich, well-drained soil. Unlike most vegetables, they will let you get away with growing them in part shade, but in my experience they will produce better flavour and higher betalain content (a phytonutrient with antioxidant properties) when grown in full sun.
For the best beets for eating, sow the seed from late winter to mid-spring. Plant three seeds at 10cm (4in) intervals along the row. Once your seedlings have reached 5cm (2in) high, thin them out to leave just one plant per interval. These thinnings make tasty spring salad greens
The great thing about beetroot is that it is fairly drought tolerant, actually becoming higher in many nutrients if kept slightly on the dry side. That said, do not be too mean with the hose, as severe drought can make the roots fibrous and woody and dent their sweetness. The key, as always, lies in moderation. The tops of some varieties will protrude out of the soil surface as they grow. Keep them cool by covering the tops in a mulch of compost as they appear. This also provides them with added nutrients to fuel their growth. For the best flavour and texture, harvest beets when they reach golf to tennis-ball size.
VARIETY GUIDE
‘Detroit Dark Red’
In my opinion the tastiest of all: intensely red, intensely sweet and with no soil-like hints. This variety also happens to contain one of the highest concentrations of the red pigment betalain. I also love the similar variety ‘Red Ace’, which is just as tasty but even easier to grow. It’s more disease-resistant and quicker growing, kicking out whopping great leaves as big as chard. Probably the best variety for high yields both above and below the soil.
If you are after something different, try ‘Bull’s Blood’, a variety originally bred as an ornamental for its deep crimson leaves during the Victorian craze for bedding. It’s tasty, too, with sweet, nutrient-packed leaves and roots. Best harvested young, as it can become increasingly tough and earthy with age.
‘Burpee’s Golden’
Introduced by American seed company Burpee way back in the early 19th century, this has swapped its red betalain pigments for the yellow hue given by lutein, another celebrated phytonutrient. With a flavour very similar to traditional red varieties such as ‘Detroit Dark Red’, albeit with honey-like hints, this is a real dual-purpose beet, with very little earthiness in its tender roots and tasty leaves. It has a lower germination rate, though, so sow it more thickly than other varieties.
‘Chioggia’
An old Italian heirloom variety much loved by chefs. This beet is one of the sweetest varieties around, but its high sugar levels are matched with an almighty earthiness. Perfect for lovers of gutsy, classic beetroot flavour, but one to skip for soily-flavour phobics. Sadly, its sorcerer’s pinwheel of colour can fade once cooked. Boil whole, then peel and slice just before serving to retain maximum colour.
‘Albina Vereduna’
Sugar fiends, this one’s for you – an old Dutch variety that was originally bred not for eating but as a sugar beet. As you might expect, it has an exceptionally sweet flavour and little earthiness, complemented by a slightly denser, potato-like texture that holds its shape well when cooked. Its tender, wavy-edged leaves make excellent eating too. A great all-rounder.
Its lack of betalain pigments also means it won’t leave your kitchen (not to mention hands!) stained serial-killer red. An excellent candidate for when you want the flavour of beetroot, without tainting the colour of other ingredients in the dish.
There is a downside to this, however: as it is the pigment itself that provides much of the phytonutrient content of regular beetroot, the lack of staining power puts a serious dent in any claim this beet may have to “superfood” status.
Grow for Flavour by James Wong (Mitchell Beazley, £20) is available to order from Telegraph Books at £16 + £1.95 p&p (0844 871 1515)

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