We got a bag of beautiful organic baby beetroots in our Friday box of fruit and vegetables, and I set to thinking about all the things I love to do with beetroots. Sri Lankan beetroot curry and borsht are on the top of my list. But when it’s a matter of gorgeous baby beets, I think it’s best to keep it simple and do as little as possible, in what has become known in my head as ‘Italian-style beetroot’.
This works brilliantly for green beans too, and is something I saw my friend’s mother do for lunch at her house in Port Fairy one summer’s day. I came bearing not much other than a bag of beans from our neighbour’s garden back at home in Melbourne. This old neighbour, Pal, was an elderly Hungarian man who bonded instantly with us when he learned that my husband’s mother is Hungarian too, and he was always giving us something – huge cast-iron pots of goulash, home-cured sausages, homemade wine, and plenty of stuff from his garden. It was so lovely of him, but honestly sometimes I couldn’t face any more goulash!
Pal’s beans that I took down to Port Fairy were actually looking a little old I realised. I’d fallen slightly out of love with them, having been doing my best to get through the bags that Pal kept giving us … But Toni whisked them away into her kitchen and said ‘These will be beautiful’, or words to that effect. She boiled them up and dressed them simply with a generous pour of olive oil, lemon juice, and salt and pepper, like dressing a salad. The beans absorbed the dressing as they cooled down, and she was right – they were beautiful. Now I often do this simple but genius thing with beans in summer.
When you do the same thing with beetroot, you can eat it right then and there as a side dish, or store it in the fridge where it will keep for at least a week, to pop in sandwiches. It can take the place of tinned beetroot if you happen to like that (we do open the odd tin of beetroot in our house!), but it’s really hugely better than tinned, with only the natural sweetness of the beetroots themselves.
Beetroot salad with spinach, egg and dukkah croutons
This simple salad begins with the Italian-style beetroot, which is combined with baby spinach, soft-boiled egg and sourdough croutons. When the croutons are almost crisp, I add some roughly ground cumin and coriander seeds, sesame seeds, almonds, lemon thyme and salt and pepper – it’s like croutons and dukkah at the same time! The crumbs are the perfect thing to season and liven up soft-boiled eggs. I hope you like it.
12 baby beetroots (roughly golf-ball size; use more if smaller), stems and roots trimmed
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
squeeze of lemon juice
pinch of salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 thick slices of sourdough bread, cut into 1–2 cm cubes (I leave the crusts on)
1 heaped teaspoon cumin seeds
1 heaped teaspoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1 heaped tablespoon almonds
large handful of lemon thyme or a few sprigs of common thyme, leaves picked and chopped (optional)
1/3 teaspoon salt
100–150 g baby spinach
1½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
½ tablespoon sherry or red-wine vinegar
pinch of salt
4 eggs, soft-boiled (for about 4 minutes), cooled and peeled
Boil the beetroots in their skins until soft, then drain and leave to cool for 5 minutes, or until they’re cool enough to touch. Peel off their skins (this should be easy to do this with your hands), then cut in half and place in a large bowl. Add the oil, lemon juice and salt and mix well. Keep mixing from time to time as the beetroots cool down.
To make the croutons, heat the oil in a frying pan over medium–high heat. Add the cubes of bread and stir well to distribute the oil. Leave to fry, turning every so often, for 5–10 minutes, until becoming golden and crisp.
While the bread is frying, roughly grind the cumin and coriander seeds in a mortar. Add the sesame seeds and roughly grind again, then add the almonds and pound into fragments.
When the croutons are almost done, add the seed and nut mixture, thyme, salt and a generous sprinkling of black pepper. Keep frying, stirring regularly, until the croutons are crisp and the spices, seeds and nuts are nicely toasted. Remove from the heat. You can leave the croutons to cool if convenient, or mix them into the salad straight away while hot.
Add the spinach to the bowl of beetroots along with the oil, vinegar and salt, plus most of the croutons, reserving the smaller crumbs. Mix well. Transfer to bowls and add a soft-boiled egg, cut or broken in half, on top of each salad. Sprinkle the egg and surface of the salad with the reserved crumbs.