Beetroot: a love/hate relationship

My memories of beetroot are stained with the sour taste of it boiled, then pickled in malt vinegar, served on Sundays as part of our tea, along with boiled eggs, lettuce and cucumber, the egg yolk stained purple by the vinegar. My mother grew beetroot to pickle and to boil for salads; I refused to touch it once I left home, traumatised by these formative experiences.

Yet, its relative lack of pests, other than pigeons who peck the tops off if you forget to net the plants, and the occasional slug, makes beetroot such a lovely vegetable to grow. Full of vitamins, with white, yellow, orange and red varieties, the leaves also make an excellent green to eat. The Romans brought white beetroot to Britain, and you can get seeds of an open-pollinated white variety from Real Seeds in Pembrokeshire.

This recipe was the one that truly converted me to voluntarily eating beetroot; rather like a bright purple hummus, it livens up a salad, is wonderful with baked potatoes, and delicious in pittas with lettuce, or as a spread.

This is adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian. In her introduction, she tells us that a young nun called Protokliki, or ‘First Called’, in the Ormylia Monastery in Macedonia gave her the recipe. We make it without the bread, as Denis can’t eat wheat, or gluten of any sort. We bake the roots, rather than boil them – I’m obviously still traumatised by the thought of boiled beetroot. Very rich due to the walnuts, with an earthy flavour, a little goes a long way – it also stains clothes quite permanently if made with red beetroot. Simple and quick to make, weights are more a guide than exact – just pop everything into a food processor and taste as you mix.

beetroot [1]

Macedonian Beetroot Salad, or Pantzarosalata

180 gm/ 6oz of raw beetroot – can weigh slightly more as it will be peeled.
4 tablespoons chopped walnuts
30 gm/1oz of cooked potato [The alternative is the same weight of stale bread]
1 clove of garlic, peeled – I don’t think this is enough and we usually add at least 2/3 large cloves
6 tablespoons good olive oil (cold pressed, not light)
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
½ teaspoon salt – or to taste

Bake the whole beetroot wrapped in foil, allow to cool; the skin should peel off really easily, just don’t wear anything too light as it will stain. Your fingers will definitely stain.

Put the peeled beetroot, walnuts, potato, garlic, olive oil, vinegar and salt into a food processor. Blend until smooth – it should have a similar consistency to hummus.  Enough for six people.

Winter Salads: hardy souls

My experiment at growing winter salads undercover seems to be going to plan. I picked enough salad leaves on Christmas Day from 2 of the planted mushroom boxes to feed 4 people. I haven’t harvested anything from either of these salad boxes since 21st November (see previous post for more details). Below are my before & after pictures:

Salad Box 1-25th Dec, before cropping

Salad Box 1-25th Dec, before cropping

Salad Box1 after cropping 25th Dec

Salad Box1 after cropping 25th Dec

SaladBox2, 25th Dec before cropping

SaladBox2, 25th Dec before cropping

SaladBox2- after cropping

SaladBox2- after cropping

Since picking leaves I’ve watered the boxes (with lukewarm water+few drops seaweed extract) as they were quite dry; I also noticed that the plants had produced lots of fine roots near the surface, possibly to compensate for lack of depth in their tray, so I added a top-dressing of fresh compost and raised the level about 1″/3cm, as well as firming compost around each plant. I’ve also regularly cleared weed seedlings & any yellowing or dead leaves. I’ll leave these trays now, probably for about 1 month, before picking again.

What this has demonstrated so far is how much the decrease in light levels & drop in temperature affects plant growth through the cold winter months; certainly I’m learning a great deal about the relationship between sowing & planting times on growth & harvests during winter. I’ve also discovered how tough oriental brassicas can be if they survive past seedling stage & slug attack. The plants I’ve been most impressed with have been the Oriental cabbages: Pe Tsai & Bekana salad cabbage as well as Yukina savoy; the larger, more sturdy lettuce seedlings have done better than smaller specimens, demonstrating the importance of sturdy plants established with good root systems before cold & lower light levels significantly close down growth. I’ll watch the smaller lettuce plants  with interest to see if they manage to catch up as temperature & light levels rise in spring. Spinach hasn’t done very well at all (wrong variety, sown at the wrong time?) & the Black Tuscan Kale isn’t doing very much, although seedlings from the same batch are surviving very well on the allotment in the open without any protection. Similarly, the red & green mustard frills have produced very large plants under white builders’ netting on the allotment, but only moderate growth here, in comparison. It’s also interesting to note the different rates of growth across the range of plants: I think pak choi, leaf chard & kale would probably benefit from growing together, as their relative slowness in relation to the oriental cabbages & lettuces means they’re in danger of being shaded as they grow. Or, is it just these varieties, & should I have sown seeds earlier so the seedlings were bigger when I planted them into their boxes? All interesting, all to be noted for next year.

A cunning plan: oriental brassicas & salads for winter

Every year I attempt to sow & grow oriental vegetables; every year I fail miserably. I either sow too early or too late & the seeds fail to germinate, or they grow, it rains & the slugs snaffle them, completely. I’d reached the conclusion that my efforts were wasted & I was destined never to succeed with them. Until this year.

You might consider that oriental brassicas had no chance in such a wet summer & equally damp & gloomy autumn. However, with failure of our potato crop (major blight damage) I was determined to show progress elsewhere with my growing skills. So, I sowed lots of turnips & loads of brassicas, alongside winter hardy lettuce varieties. However, this year I sowed seeds in modules, as well as open sowing in beds, which allowed me to replace plants that became slug & snail feasts. It also allowed me to experiment with container grown winter salads at home, in addition to covered beds in the allotment.

Seeds need to be sown between late August & end of September in order that they germinate & grow sufficiently, ready for transplanting  by mid-late October, while they still have time to establish a root system to sustain them over winter – it takes approximately 14 days for plants to settle & recover from transplanting. Small, but sturdy plants survive the winter cold better than larger specimens. They need to be covered with fleece or sturdy builders’ netting before the 1st frosts, usually by the end of October – but watch the weather forecasts. The dates are important because light levels diminish significantly after the Autumn Equinox (22nd September this year) as days shorten, temperatures fall & growth slows. You should also be careful about covering your beds with blue netting over winter, as it can cut light levels by up to 30%, not a very good idea during a season when light levels dip so low. I fortunately salvaged some white netting that I’ve washed & repaired (pink originally, but bleached through use).

Charles Dowding provides a useful chart for sowing & planting dates in his Winter Vegetable book. I have adapted my allotment diary charts & have include details of other salads, mainly lettuce varieties, Endive  & Kale, that are also part of my plan for winter salad harvests. Meanwhile, below, are examples of the plants I’ve raised & planted out in trays for the winter harvests at home.

I used old mushroom trays lined with thick layers of newspaper & cardboard, then filled them with a 50/50 mix of our own compost & leaf mould, pressing it firmly into the tray as I filled (but not too much).  Box1 was planted up on 23rd Oct, box2- beginning of November, box3 on 21st Nov, along with a couple of plant troughs . You can see how I’ve spaced the seedlings, below. The spacing is fine for now but I suspect, in spring, the boxes might become too crowded, given the plants survive the winter – all currently in an unheated kitchen extension where the door is propped open for our cats to get in & out, therefore generally cold!

Mushroom tray filled with compost before planting up

Salad box1 after planting up-23rd Oct
Above, from the top, L-R:
Leaf Erbette, Grandpa Admire’s lettuce, Bekana salad cabbage
Leaf Beet, Endive Gigante di Bergamo
Winter Marvel, Devil’s Tongue Romaine, Jack Ice
Red Pak choi, Yukina Savoy
Red Frills(Mizuna)x3, Bull’s Blood beetleaf x4, Spinach Gigante d’Inverno

Salad box1-3 weeks later, mid-November

I planted up the 2nd mushroom box a couple of weeks later, in early November.
Below, from the bottom, L-R:
Red Frills/Mizuna, Glacier Pak choi, Golden Frills
Cavolo di Nerox2
Rouge de Grenoblois, Jack Ice, Morton’s Secret
PeTsai Cabbagex2
Bekana salad cabbage, Yukina Savoy, Bekana salad cabbage.
Salad Box2, early November
Salad Box2, 17th November

I planted up a 3rd box (below) on 21st November, a bit late really, so I will watch how it grows with interest. My main concern will be whether the plants are able to recover quickly enough to put on some growth before light levels completely dip in December.
From Top, L-R:
Yukina Savoy x2
Continuity Lettuce x3
Bekana salad cabbage x2
Endive Gigante di Bergarmo x3
Green Frills, Red Frills/Mizuna
Winter Marvel, Rouge Grenobloise x2
I’ve picked enough leaves from the first 2 salad boxes to fill several pitta breads – that is, only a light harvest of the largest leaves. I’ll continue posting pictures over winter as a record of harvests & growth, but so far, I’ve grown more, & more varied, winter salads than ever before. What is required is some precise sowing dates, careful choice of seed varieties & nurturing of seedlings through to autumn transplanting. Planning & organisation rather than serendipity!