A quest for gastro-liberation, an excuse to buy more cookbooks…

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Beet it

Okay. So listen. There’s no need to start sending me unsolicited copies of Natasha Walter’s Living Dolls. I haven’t turned into some sort of gastro Katie Price; glass-crackingly bright, shiny and pink. This, I am painfully aware, is my third consecutive post in which the wares I’m hawking are eye-searingly cerise. I have cooked things which aren’t sugary in palatte and palate. On this, you’ll have you accept my word because this might turn you around on chard.

I think really I only ever used to pretend to like chard. I felt as though I should like it more, much more, than I really did. So I ate it and secretly, silently swallowed my nagging disappointment with it. Whatever I did with it, it always seemed to overpower with its violently green flavour, as though it had brought the taste of the earth, water and sun with it.

So, whilst pondering what to do with my deluge of chard in my weekly vegetable box, I discovered in the course of my research (read: looking at the Wikipedia entry on chard) that it is a relative of beetroot. And so, I wondered whether the bright, lemony, abrasive character of chard might be mellowed and helped along by a close relative?

Beetroot made sweet by roasting, paired with the oozy promise of starch from arborio rice and a sweet nuttiness from sheep’s cheese; all these combined to make the perfect foil for my troublesome greens. As it turns out, this might just be the perfect summer risotto; it sings on your tongue and makes you wish you were eating it in a lazily darkening garden with wine and the hum of bees for company. Eat it on the sofa in the slight chill of a March evening and you’ll still love it.

Beetroot and chard risotto

You will cast your eye down the list of ingredients and think that 60g of arborio rice isn’t very much for two servings, however the large proportion of vegetables bulks out this risotto considerably. Saying that, whilst it is sufficient to feed two, it may also suffice for one greedy person too.

2 large raw beets (approximately cricket ball sized)

1/2 bunch of chard

a medium onion

a large handful of baby spinach

60g arborio rice

glass of white wine

1/2 pint good quality stock (chicken or vegetable)

pinch of chilli flakes

juice of half a lemon

knob of butter

smallish hunk of hard sheep’s cheese such as Lord of the Hundreds (available from Waitrose) or pecorino

salt and pepper

First, the easy part. Pre-heat your oven to gas mark 6/200c; wrap your washed beets, anointed in a little olive oil, loosely in a little foil parcel. Place on a baking tray and roast for an hour or until tender (check by spearing with a fork). Do not, I repeat, do not forget about your slowly roasting beets and fall asleep only to wake up the next morning to items which resemble black, bubbly cricket balls.

Once cooked though, leave to cool before topping, tailing and peeling. Slice into slim crescent wedges. Prepare the chard by separating the leaves and stalks. Finely slice the onion and chard stalks and gently fry in a large pan until sweet and transluscent. Add in the chilli flakes, beetroot and arborio rice and cook for a further five minutes until the rice takes on a decidedly pink hue. Increase the heat and add in the white wine (with an extra splosh for luck and excess’s sake); let this cook away and reduce down for another five minutes.

A note on risotto: listen, I’m going to assume that you’ve probably made a risotto before. So if you have, just skim over this part – it’s all plain sailing from here, you know the drill with the stirring and the gradual addition of stock. If you haven’t made risotto before or you’re just not confident about it, relax. It is one of those cookery tricks that seem like alchemy but it’s pretty straightforward. Things to remember: don’t get impatient, add in the stock one ladleful at a time; you don’t need to constantly stir, just periodically every five minutes to make it coalesce and to make sure it’s not drying up; don’t skimp on the butter, cheese and five minute sit at the end, it’s some sort of dark magic. Just make your sacrifice of time at the altar of the Risotto Gods and you’ll be blessed. Right.

Add in the stock, one ladleful at a time and alternate with stirring until absorbed by the rice. Keep on going until the rice is tender and has a tiny bit of bite. You will also be able to tell by eye because it will just suddenly take on an oozy, glossy appearance. If you suddenly feel seized by the urge to use the stock ladle as a giant spoon, this may be a clue that your risotto is ready. Resist this urge and hang on for five more minutes.

Add in the roughly chopped chard leaves and the baby spinach; stir to combine and encourage the greens to wilt. Squeeze in the lemon juice and season and cook for another few minutes to absorb the excess liquid generated by the leaves and the lemon juice. Once you are at almost-eating-point, throw in a knob of butter and a generous grating of cheese (reserving a little to top with when serving). Give it a quick stir, take it off the heat and cover with a lid. Let it (and indeed you, because you’ve been standing up for about 20 minutes now) sit for five minutes before serving.

Variations: okay, if I haven’t brought you around on chard yet then substitute for some peppery rocket, it’ll still provide a lovely counterpoint to the sweetness of the beets. I purposefully went for a sweet, mild, nutty sheep’s cheese because I felt that between the contrast of the beetroot and chard, the dish needed a harmonious note. However, if you’re feeling a bit Philip Glass (props if you get my pretentious joke there. I’m such a loser), some salty goat’s cheese or a blue stilton would also, I suspect, work.


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Think pink

I am, by nature, a colourful person.

I have a penchant for:

  • colourful coats
  • colouring my hair
  • colourful language

So, why has it taken so long for it to occur to me that eating a plateful of pink is one of life’s unsung glories? And I’m not talking the sugary, insipid pink that adorns nouveau-vintage bakeries. I mean magenta and cerise, bold colours that feed the eye as well as the palate.

If you don’t love beetroot then I’m not sure this dish will convince you. If you’ve never had roasted beetroot, then let me try. You know that jammy caramalised thing that happens to onions and roast peppers? That happens to beetroot too. And everything that I suspect that you distrust about beetroot (that distinctive earthy aroma; the memories of half-open vacuum packs, a mocking reminder of abandoned health kicks; borscht) becomes immaterial when you roast beets. It becomes much softer and soothing and tastes less like a punch in the mouth from a forest floor.

There. Convinced enough to try?

Roasted beetroot and walnut tagliatelle

Beetroot and walnut tagliatelle

Bunch of raw beetroot


Tub of mascarpone cheese

Three cloves of garlic

A lemon

A generous handful of shelled walnut halves

A handful of rocket

Goat’s cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat your oven to gas mark 6/200c. Wash the beetroot, decapitate their leafy tops and place in a baking tray with plenty of olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast until tender. (The beetroot that I used were small walnut-sized beets which took about half an hour to roast. Larger ones the size of cricket balls will take about 50-60 minutes.)

Whilst you are waiting for them to roast, have a glass of wine and cook your pasta in plenty of salted water. Drain and rinse in cold water.

Lightly toast your walnut halves in a small pan, for a few minutes (try not to let them colour, you just want to enhance the nutty taste). Put to one side until you are ready to assemble your dish.

Once the beetroot is cooked and cooled, peel and quarter them. Crush the garlic cloves and gently sautee in a glug of olive oil for a few minutes until soft and aromatic. Add in your beetroot, pasta and walnuts and swirl the mascarpone through. Add in the juice of the lemon to loosen up the sauce a little. Finish by stirring in crumbled goat’s cheese and rocket; season to taste; and serve.

A note: If you find that mascarpone makes too claggy a sauce for your liking, creme fraiche would be an excellent substitute here. Too fatty? Try low-fat Greek yoghurt or half-fat creme fraiche. Not naughty enough? Double cream. It also occurs to me that a soft, creamy blue cheese would not be out of place.