A Beet in Time. Beetroot and Caramelised Onion Relish.

Once upon a time, here in Australia, there was the beetroot. It was boiled, sliced, then pickled, and added to a salad sandwich, placed on top of a hamburger ‘with the lot’ or served in a salad alongside its summer friends, the tomato and Iceberg lettuce. This was the era when Olive Oil came in a small jar from the chemist and was used as a skin moisturiser! ¬†Salad dressings were rare, except for a sharp home- made mayonnaise which was based on condensed milk, vinegar, and mustard.

Many older Australians still favour their beets cooked in this way: after the initial long boiling, the beets are skinned, drained then sliced into a container, while alternately sprinkling each layer with sugar and white vinegar. Not a summer goes by without my mother ( at 94 ) calling for a bunch of beetroot to make this light preserve. This method can be applied to any vegetable for a quick pickle.

New Beetroot relish
Beetroot and onion relish

Like most modern cooks, I enjoy the more earthy taste of the beet without the added sugar and vinegar. Around  8 years ago, fresh-baked beetroot and fetta or goat cheese salad topped with walnuts became the dish to change our view of beetroot. My young visitors devour versions of this salad yet avoid the retro pickled version. The composed beetroot salad has put this old-fashioned tuber back on the culinary map.

beet
Beetroot and onion relish. Easy and fast.

The recipe below for beetroot relish takes the humble root back to the middle ground. The ruby brine of retro sliced beets is absent but some of the¬†agrodolce elements remain. This is now a new favourite for summer sandwiches and rolls or as part of a classic Ploughman’s lunch or as a counterbalance to a rich cheese dish, such as a double baked Stilton Souffle

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 large brown onions ( 800g) sliced thinly
  • 1 1/2 cups ( 330 g) firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups (375ml) cider vinegar
  • 3 large fresh beetroot ( 600g) grated coarsely
  • 1 teaspoon coarse cooking salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper

Method

Heat the oil in a large saucepan; cook onion, stirring about 15 minutes or until the onion is softened and caramelised.

Add remaining ingredients; stir over high heat until sugar dissolves. Bring to the boil. Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally for about 30 minutes or until the beetroot is tender and the relish is thick.

Spoon hot relish into hot sterilised jars. Seal immediately. Label and date jars when  cold. Makes four cups,

Store relish in a cool, dark place for at least 3 weeks before opening. Refrigerate the relish after opening.

recipe from The Australian Women’s Weekly Preserves. 2011.

Sweet relish
Sweet relish

Beetroots and Italy. The Italian word for beetroot,¬†Barbabietola,¬†is so expressive, visually conveying the trailing beard,¬†or barba, from¬†the end of the bietola (beet/silver beet/chard) and its root. Try saying barbabietola,¬†placing an equal stress on each vowel- it’s a little tongue twister for many, like the start of the old Beach Boys song, Ba-Ba-Ba, Ba-Barbara-Ann. Beets were favoured in the Roman era and used for food and medicine. These days, Europe grows 120 million tons of sugar beets and produces 16 million tonnes of white sugar, extracting a sufficient quantity to meet 90% of demand. This is a different crop to the red variety. While the edible¬†barbabietola may occasionally turn up in a risotto, it’s use as a relish is not part of Italian culinary history. It is occasionally used in recipes, however most of these are modern and derivative, appearing in magazines such as Donna Moderna or Sale e Pepe¬†and not in traditional collections.

barbabietola dal orto.
Barbabietola dal orto.