JOANNA'S FOOD: family cooking, from scratch, every day

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Beetroot salad

We've been eating seasonally for over a year now - easy in the summer, but it needs careful thought at this time of year. As we've got better at it, we've added more rules: positively no vegetables with jet lag, preferably raised in the UK, although trucked in from Spain at a pinch. We're not sure what to think about British veg raised under heated glass (this week's lettuce, after weeks without), or frozen veg (all that electricity), or cans, or commercially bottled produce. We're not yet ready to say that everything should be raised in the garden, but I am certainly planning a more elaborate veg patch this year. I am already more concerned with late summer and autumn plantings than spring sowings, because if you get the early sowings wrong, there's plenty of choice in the market. If you plant late in the autumn, then the winter salads aren't growing well enough to sustain the kitchen through the dark months - and that's what happened to us this year. My lovely saladisi, a mix of cut-and-come-again leaves, have not been strong enough to stand repeated pickings, and they would have been if I had sown them three weeks earlier. The kale, too, which stands outside the kitchen window, should have been in the ground a month earlier to make strong growth before the light faded - we won't be able to start eating them until late February. It's been a steep learning curve, and we're all fed up with squash and turnips.

So last night, I tried something different - a salad made from one of those vacuum packs of beetroot. The dressing was unusual, and suggested by a half-remembered recipe written by Angelika, who writes a blog called The Flying Apple from Vienna. Vacuum-packed beetroot are normally fairly bland, but this easy salad is bursting with flavour.

I LOVE beetroot - we used to have it every Wednesday at school, pickled in harsh malt vinegar, with a slice of corned beef and a dollop of lumpy mash. For years it was my favourite comfort food, although corned beef is now firmly off our menu (it doesn't actually say on the tin how much saturated fat there is, but when you look at it you see that it must be getting on for 50%). I know that beetroot is, for many, a horror food: at school the nuns used to keep us in until we had finished everything our plates - I never went to school on a Friday afternoon, because I couldn't, just couldn't, eat the slice of Edam. Elsie McArthur never went to school at all in the afternoons, because there were all sorts of things she couldn't eat. My friend DD was a picky eater, but managed to gain her freedom most afternoons by hiding the remains in her napkin or pocket. For obvious reasons she couldn't do this on beetroot day.

All this staring at plates took place in a huge Victorian glasshouse, with a beautiful tiled floor, which was set in the old walled garden of Friar Park, an extraordinary mansion on the edge of Henley on Thames which later became the home of the Beatle George Harrison. My memories of the house are vivid but patchy - try as I may, some parts of it I just can't visualise, although others are as clear in my mind as parts of this house in which I have been living for 20 years. We must have been hanging our heads over the revolting remains, because what I remember best of all about the glasshouse is the lovely floor.

But back to the beetroot:
Slice the roots in a 250g vacuum pack. Make a dressing with a little zest from an orange, a little of the juice, a teaspoon of chilli jam (or use Thai chilli sauce if you don't make this useful and delicious fresh-tasting cross between sauce and jam), and a few drops of chilli oil. Leave to infuse for 10 minutes or so, and strew it with a pinch of Maldon salt before serving.

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