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Choice ingredient: Christian Honor on beetroot

Categories: Expert guidance

Christian Honor, Borough Market demo chef and owner of ChrisKitch, tells us why beetroot is his favourite February ingredient

In this regular series, cooks with a connection to Borough Market explore the seasonal ingredients that give them most pleasure. This month, chef and owner of ChrisKitch restaurant tells us why beetroot is his favourite February ingredient

Beetroot is amazing. It is a food that keeps on giving. It can be the real life and soul of the party given the chance. Put it in a salad with watermelon, tomato and feta, and the flavours will explode. You have to lose your misconceptions and be open-minded about beetroot’s versatility.

At the restaurant, we use a beetroot ketchup instead of tomato and the customers love it—it is a little hot, but sour at the same time, with more depth than the tomato. I would take the tomato, take it off the pedestal it’s on and put a beetroot up there with a gold medal around its neck. But you have to start with the kind of high quality vegetable you find here at Borough Market.

A bad rap
Beetroot has had a bad rap for a long time. It has mainly been sold pickled in tins and jars, as a sodden, squishy over-processed mess. So many people still think that’s how they are, but that is so far from the truth.

When cooking with fresh beetroot, after it has been in the oven or boiling water for a while, the best way to tell if it’s done is to use a small knife to pierce the centre. If the knife easily cuts all the way through, gently lift the beetroot up using the knife. If the beetroot slides off when lifted, it’s done. You will learn very quickly roughly how long different sizes take to cook.

My cooking style has evolved since my time in hotel kitchens. Food in hotels and restaurants often goes through too many different hands and processes before it gets to the plate, and something can be lost in the process. With beetroot, however, we have the opposite problem—a lack of culinary imagination. More often than not, it is cooked into oblivion. I have really turned my back on that way of cooking—for me, it is imperative that the food stays true to the ingredient. My food is very simple: big flavours, using the best ingredients in the best ways, using as few processes as possible.

Star of the dish
One of the dishes I produced at my first Borough Market demonstration was a raw beetroot salad with a little vinegar and olive oil. It was a bit daunting doing something so simple, but I wanted to make a point and people loved it. Like with all seemingly simple dishes, you have to get the balance right, but when you do it is brilliant. I wanted to show that it is totally possible to use beetroot where you would normally use the protein in a meal—it looks beautiful as well as tastes great and it can really hold its own as the star of the dish.

For example, you can take a beetroot, wrap it with kale, then wrap that with puff pastry to make a beetroot wellington. It tastes fantastic. Beetroot can be used as the base of a beautifully rich, silky sauce for venison—the flavours match wonderfully. It can be a hearty vegetable in its own right, but it’s also a great vehicle for flavour. It can hold acidic vinegar, it can be mixed with brown sugar and caramelised, it can be used in a tart and people use it in ice cream, too, because it can bring a rich sweetness to it.

I also love the different colours beetroot comes in—oranges and yellows, blood red, purple. When you slice it, you get this amazing spider web pattern. At the restaurant, we do a beetroot carpaccio with sugar and some mirin, served with figs and mascarpone cheese. It is such a beautiful combination of flavours, textures and colours.

Crisp fresh apple
Then there are baby beetroots, which people do not eat nearly often enough. Baby beetroot by itself, roasted with a little olive oil and salt is incredible. You really don’t have to do much to it. I also suggest shredding a beetroot (either cooked or raw) with a crisp fresh apple of your choice. Mix it in with some red quinoa, soy beans and sprinkle with fresh mint.

When I was in the Market recently, I saw some flower sprouts at Ted’s Veg—holy moly they are amazing. I bought some and took them back to the restaurant. We made a beetroot juice dressing for them, finished it with powdered pumpkin seeds, and tossed everything together. The flavours were wonderful.

While the restaurant isn’t strictly vegetarian, I love the challenge of supplying a complete meal that is tasty, nutritious and looks great, without meat. The technical side to really understanding ingredients and creating new dishes with them floats my boat. So often, especially here in the West, there can be a real lack of creativity about cooking vegetables. Each one seems to have been given an allotted slot. If you just break out of that mindset, it is incredible what you can do.