Out of the Frying Pan And Into the Antipodes--
Recipes & reminiscences from 70-plus years of New Zealand & Australian food; with some of the loves, some of the lovers, and some of the culinary & social history.
(A few names & places have been changed to protect the guilty)

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Beetroot Fixation, Or, Vini Vidi Vinegar Again

Beetroot Fixation
Vini Vidi Vinegar Again

Cookery books. All ancient. That one’s the most fattening so-called veggie cookbook in the world—no, the entire universe. The majority of the recipes are full of butter and cheese, plus and cream, and if you thought veggies might be good for you, in that they reduce cholesterol and produce fibre and vitamins and, um, do other good stuff, stop now.
    —Eliminate all free radicals, that’s it! Like James Bond. Don’t recognise it? Poor you.
    I’m trying the book anyway. How many flaming recipes for beetroot soup? “Beetroot Salad with Anchovy Dressing.” God! I mean, I like anchovies on a pizza—though mind you, they’re full of salt, very bad for you—but with beetroot? “Beetroot and Orange Salad.” Why bother? They’re both sweet. Maybe she means Seville oran—Nope. Read on... Beetroot and potato salad? Gee, lady, “arrange them round the edge of the plate” or not, they’ll bleed all over the potato!
    It gets more and more ridiculous. The most revolting one is probably the thing au gratin, gulp. Swallow hard. Chopped up, slathered in cheese and butter, with a token layer of breadcrumbs. Death by cholesterol? Too right.
    Try another book. This sounds better:

“Cover them with olive oil or a vinaigrette that has very little vinegar in it—or make one with all lemon-juice. Sprinkle with chopped parsley. Chunks of beetroot, swimming in malt vinegar, are an abomination.”
Robin McDouall’s Cookery Book for the Greedy, Penguin, 1965 (originally published as: Collins pocket guide to good cooking, 1955)

    Cripes, give the man a medal! Are they what! The times I’ve had that combo in Erewhon!
    Right, well, this is definitely the pick of the bunch (not a pun, thanks), but I haven’t got a lemon to go with my beetroot, and as a matter of fact lemons are bloody dear at the supermarket, don’t think Australian lemons ripen at the same time as beetroot. Though these are only small beets, the supermarkets are panting in the wake of the Aussie TV foodies that’ve run mad over small vegetables this year. Not vegetables that ought to be eaten small, mind you, like green beans.
    Read on…
    “Beetroot goes well with corn-salad.”
    Oh, help. A la recherche du temps perdu and then some. Totter over to the table and sit down shakily.
    See, the thing is, I know what ageing Pommy cookery books mean by “corn-salad” (note that hyphen). The other English name for it is “lamb’s lettuce,” both being equally absurd, yep, and what it is, is nothing to do with corn (or lambs), it’s “la mâche.” It has a very short season. Gégé introduced me to it in Paris. It’s little roundish green leaves, very soft, and when you eat them they melt in the mouth.

    Get this: when the lamb’s lettuce is in season the vegetable stalls in the Paris markets always have large, ready-cooked beetroot for sale!
    Unlikely as it seems, it’s a really lovely combination. But as you don’t get la mâche in Adelaide, South Australia, the back end of the world, let’s not have it.
    Um... no. Well, some of the other books have got recipes for beetroot, but they’re nearly all revolting plus and so complicated that I’ll never manage them, and/or use ingredients that I won’t be able to find.
    Think of a recipe for myself? The only thing that comes to mind, possibly because it’s seared into the memory cells, is jellied beetroot.

Jellied Beetroot?
Jellied beetroot. It featured every summer. You went to Mum’s old friend’s house for the great treat of her super-generous tea with very mixed feelings indeed. Would the dreaded beetroot be on and would Mum glare at you until you gave in and let her dish you out some? Well, if A, then inevitably B, unless Mum was occupied in glaring at another unfortunate sibling at that exact point in time. The nature of the universe being what it is, that didn’t happen very often.
    Going home. (Steely-voiced): “That’ll do. There was nothing wrong with that jellied beetroot!”
    Certain other siblings make sick noises.
    “That’ll do!”
    Dead silence...
    Dad doesn’t stick up for us, of course: he never did. Think that was the glue that held that marriage together, looking back. Solidarity against the younger generation. She just about went to pieces when he retired and was unendingly under her feet. Yes, I kid you not, bawled all over me (since I happened to be there at the instant: the universe is like that, too).
    “He’s always under my feet!”
    Yeah, he would be, he lives here, too. (Didn’t say it).
    Well, what can ya say? I just made soothing noises about giving it time, settling into a new routine, you’ll both get used to it... Of course they did. She soon found other things to disapprove of, like various offspring’s choices of life-partner, etcetera, etcetera... And he settled down to playing with the boys’ toys in the garage, in fact extending the play area considerably under the back of the building, and just coming upstairs for meals. And those on-the-dot cups of tea, morning and afternoon, natch. Worked out real well.
    Yeah, probably does help to explain why I’ve remained a spinster.

Stella’s Jellied Beetroot
2 bunches Beetroot boiled till tender;  3/4 cup vinegar;
1 packet Edmonds Raspberry Jelly Crystals
Dissolve jelly crystals in one cup of water in which beetroot has been boiled; add 3/4 cup vinegar. Slice beetroot and place in mould; pour liquid over and leave to set.

Subsequent research has revealed that this is the recipe for “Beetroot Mould” in the New Zealand cook’s bible, the Edmonds Cookery Book (De Luxe Ed., 1955, 1968 printing), except that Mum’s old friend always substituted raspberry jelly for the book’s red currant. Makes it much fruitier! Bit like her character, really—though it had nothing of the vinegary in it, bless her. The Edmonds book adds: “Delicious served as a salad or with cold meat, etc.” Yep, that is how we ate it. Ulp.
    The Edmonds book remains the EnZed cook’s bible in the 21st century!

The Edmonds Cookery Book is the quintessential guide to traditional New Zealand cuisine. It was first published as The Sure to Rise Cookery Book in 1908 as a marketing tool by a manufacturer of baking powder, but it is now known as a Kiwi icon. ... The cookbook has gone through many editions in its 100-year history. In 1955, a "De Luxe" edition was introduced, and had gone through 57 reprints by 2006.
    The book has been described as "as much a part of New Zealand kitchens as a stove and knife," and at one time it was “sent unsolicited to every newly engaged couple in New Zealand.”
    Edmonds recipe books have sold over 3,000,000 copies. It remains New Zealand's fastest selling book with over 200,000 copies sold in one year.
“Edmonds Cookery Book,” Wikipedia,

An Enduring Antipodean Tradition
The jellied beetroot recipe’s endured for years in the Antipodes, the slightly more up-market versions substituting gelatine for the packet of jelly crystals.

    The Australian Green and Gold Cookery Book, 15th ed. (rev.), circa 1949, has two versions: “Jellied Beetroot” and “Beetroot Mould”, both using gelatine and vinegar, one adding sugar. Even by 1980 we find the New Zealanders still trotting it out: “Beetroot In Jelly” in The Cook’s Garden, by Mary Browne, Helen Leach & Nancy Tichborne, incorporates 3 medium-sized beetroot, gelatine, sugar, and 1/4 cup vinegar. Before this it would always have been malt vinegar and it didn’t need saying (and so wasn’t said), but their concession to modernity is: “(wine or white vinegar if using golden beetroot)”. They’ve grown these lovely fresh veggies in their back gardens, why are they killing them? Well, in the long tradition of their mums and grannies—yeah.
    And they’re still at it, in the 21st century! Check it out: “Raspberry Beetroot Jelly.”

Why Vinegar?

Why the vinegar? You always had vinegar with beetroot in the British Commonwealth—indeed, in the Colonies of the Empire and the former Colonies alike. Jolly good show!

The Development of a Tradition
Let me demonstrate. I’ve got over a century of horrid recipes for beetroot with vinegar, and I’m quite sure the idea goes back even further. Is it a yin and yang thing? Balancing the sweetness of the beets with a sour dressing? Like the nun said, Heaven knows, Mr Allison. The result is Hellish, not heavenly, alas.

No Immunity for Vegetarians: 1891
A.G. Payne’s early cookbook for vegetarians is fascinating, and many of his recipes stand up well today. Not this one, though.

Beet-Root Salad
In boiling beet-roots be careful not to break them, or else they will bleed and lose their colour. When the beet-root is boiled and cold, peel it, and cut it into thin slices. It can be dressed with oil and vinegar, or vinegar only, adding pepper and salt.
(A.G. Payne. Cassell’s Vegetarian Cookery. London, Melbourne, Cassell, 1891)

Developing Fixations: 1894
By the end of the 19th century nasty concoctions of beetroot in vinegar were all too common in English-language cookery books and were to ruin colonial summertime dinner tables for the next century. This one of Mrs Wicken’s is particularly horrible, if fascinating, in that it represents the beginnings of two especially vile Antipodean culinary fixations: pasta salad and beetroot-vinegar salad! Double ugh!

Beetroot and Macaroni Salad
3 oz. Macaroni;  2 tablespoonsful Oil; 1 bunch Beetroot;
Pepper and Salt; 2 tablespoonsful Vinegar
Total Cost—5d.
Boil both the macaroni and the beetroot by directions given elsewhere. When quite cold, peel and slice up the beetroot and cut the macaroni into pieces about two inches long; arrange them in alternate layers on a dish. Blend the oil and vinegar with the salt and pepper and pour it over; let it stand for an hour, basting continually with the oil and vinegar. By that time it should be of a bright red colour. It is then ready to serve.
(The Art of Living in Australia, by Philip E. Muskett; together with three hundred Australian cookery recipes and accessory kitchen information by Mrs. H. Wicken. London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, [1894])

And you can then just crawl quietly away and cut your throat.
    No? Feeling brave? Okay, read on at your peril...

Transatlantic: 1908
These ghastly vinegar salads are sometimes attributed to the Germans. Here the Swiss get the blame! It’s interesting (if frightening) to see a version in an American cookery book:

Swiss Beet Salad.
Boil red beets until tender; skin and cut into thin slices. Sprinkle with salt, whole pepper, whole cloves, 2 bay-leaves and mix with wine vinegar. Let stand. Serve the next day.
(365 Foreign Dishes: A Foreign Dish For Every Day in the Year. Philadelphia, G.W. Jacobs & Co., 1908)

How to Do It: 1926 to... 1999? 2005??
In 1926 there were only two things to do with beetroot, according to The Golden Wattle Cookery Book: slather it in a white sauce (and presumably serve hot—no details are given) or treat it as a salad and, fighting your way through the admittedly very small section on “Salads” to find the instructions, pour spiced vinegar over it:

Beetroot Pickling Vinegar
Mix 1 cup vinegar, 2 tablespoons sugar, 5 cloves and 5 peppercorns. Boil for 5 minutes. Pour over cooked beetroot.
(The Golden Wattle Cookery Book. Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1999, reprinted 2005)

When Angus & Robertson republished this volume for the new millennium there was an interest in early Australian cookery books. It was originally published by E.S. Wigg & Son in 1926 under the auspices of Western Australia’s Education Department, and steadily ran through impression after impression—presumably with the content unchanged, or they’d be rated as editions. 2005 is the date of the 36th printing. The book is typical of not only the fare of the time but also the approach of the cookery books—the “everybody knows” syndrome. An awful lot is left unsaid. If you don’t know that this is a salad recipe you might assume it was a recipe for preserving beetroot in a pickling mixture, and if you did get that it wasn’t that, you’d certainly be puzzling over whether to eat it warm or not—indeed, whether to wait until the mixture cools down to pour it on the beetroot.
    What? I don’t know!
    If you read the publishers’ blurb, you’ll see that they seem to have hoped you might buy the book for real: it picks up some of the wording of the original introduction of 1926!

    “A staple in many Australian kitchens since it was first published in 1926, The Golden Wattle Cookery Book has been a favourite for generations. With clear and easy to follow recipes, from barley water, to fricassee of chicken, to jam tarts, this classic book restores simplicity and ease to cooking.
    The Golden Wattle Cookery Book also contains all the hints that a novice or experienced cook could wish for, including helpful advice on what to look for when buying and preparing fresh produce. A charming Australian cookbook vital to every household.”

Well, it ain’t easy or clear. It is, however, a charming curiosity.

Traditional: 1949 (And don’t bother about the oil, thanks)
By the 1940s this had become the norm:

Beetroot Salad
One bunch cooked beetroot, half pint vinegar, three cloves, six peppercorns, one blade mace, one teaspoon salt, one dessertspoon sugar. Put the vinegar and flavourings in a saucepan and boil five minutes. Strain, and when cold pour over the beetroot, which has been peeled and thinly sliced.
(Green and Gold Cookery Book, 15th ed. (rev.), Adelaide, R.M. Osborne, circa 1949)

Some Like It Hot... And Vinegary
There are some nice recipes for beetroot and some of them are even recipes for hot beetroot. These ain’t them.
    In 1894 Mrs Wicken has two versions, almost indistinguishable. In Stewed Beetroot and Mashed Potatoes you make an onion sauce with butter, flour & milk, then add salt, pepper and “1 dessertspoonful Vinegar”. Ulp. The boiled, peeled and sliced beetroot are then simmered in this, and served with a border of mashed potatoes. Now try this:

Beetroot and Onion Stew
3 Beetroots;            3 Onions;  1 1/2 oz. Butter;  1 teaspoonful Sugar;
1/2 teaspoonful Salt;  1/2 pint Milk;  1 tablespoonful Vinegar;
1/2 oz. Flour;  Mashed Potatoes
Total Cost—7 1/2d.  Time—One Hour
Boil the beetroots by directions given and slice them up; peel and slice up the onions and fry in the butter, but do not let them brown. Stir in the flour and the milk and bring to the boil, and when it has boiled a few minutes stir in gradually the vinegar, salt, and sugar, then the beetroot. Simmer slowly for one hour; make a border of the potatoes on a hot dish, garnish with sprigs of parsley. Put the beetroot and onion in the centre, and serve hot.

    Yep, you’re right: no essential difference.
    By 1980 they’re still at it. The Cook’s Garden by Mary Browne, Helen Leach & Nancy Tichborne (Wellington, A.H. & A.W. Reed) is supposed to encourage keen New Zealand gardeners on the traditional quarter-acre to combine this passion with a passion for cooking. This’ll put them off: Hot Beetroot With Herb Sauce. Make a sauce by combining a roux with a cup of liquid from boiling the beetroots with a tablespoon of vinegar (cider or wine vinegar, we’ve gone up-market since the days of our mums’ and grans’ malt vinegar). Bung in beetroot with fresh chives and parsley and cook up. You can even use golden beetroot. (Those anaemic-looking yellowish things which nullify the whole idea of beetroot).
    —Why kill the fresh herbs with heat and vinegar instead of sprinkling them on the finished article? Your guess is as good as mine.

No Vinegar, Please, We’re Human

Quick, quick, some nice dishes to take the taste away! Huey’s Braised Spiced Beef with Beetroot & Horseradish is a very nice recipe, except that it has a few too many mixed flavours. I’d leave out the soy sauce and the allspice but keep the juniper berries, likewise ditch the mustard or the chilli paste and probably both (it doesn’t need them, it’s got horseradish in it!). And I’d probably use yoghurt, not crème fraiche or sour cream, I am at least partly over the EnZed craving for dairy foods with an excruciatingly high fat content, Huey, if you aren’t. Go to the “Huey’s Kitchen” website, http://www.hueyskitchen.com.au
    A hot vegetarian recipe that appeals to me is:

Beetroot Rice (Chukunda chaval)
1 1/2 cups rice;  1 large cooked beetroot, diced;
1 tablespoon gram dal;  1 tablespoon black (urhad) dal;
2 onions, chopped;  2 green chillies, chopped (optional);
juice of 1 lemon;  1 teaspoon mustard seeds;
1 teaspoon ground black pepper; 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds;
a few curry leaves;  1/2 teaspoon salt;
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder;  2 tablespoons ghee;
10 cashew nuts, chopped [to garnish]
Boil the washed rice with a teaspoon of salt, drain and keep warm.
Heat 2 tablespoons of ghee and fry the mustard seeds, pepper, cumin seeds, dals and chillies. Add onions and curry leaves and fry till the onion begins to turn golden.
Stir in the beetroot, salt and turmeric and fry for a few minutes. Mix well with the cooked rice and sprinkle with lemon juice.
Garnish with fried cashew nuts and serve hot with yoghurt.
(Jack Santa Maria. Indian Vegetarian Cookery. London, Rider, 1973)

I wouldn’t add the dals, they might break your teeth! If you want extra crunch, you could use more mustard seeds, frying them until they pop, before adding the onions and curry leaves.

Cold Beetroot To Warm Your Heart
Cold beetroot can be lovely. It doesn’t have to sit there naked, but you don’t have to add lashings of vinegar to dress it up! Try lemon juice or yoghurt instead, or even both. Middle Eastern recipes, or those based on them, have the right idea:

Beetroot Salad
1/2 lb boiled beetroot, diced;  1/2 pint yoghurt
2 tablespoons lemon juice;  2 tablespoons olive or corn oil; salt
Mix the lemon juice with the oil. Add the yoghurt, and salt to taste, and beat well. Fold in the diced beetroot and mix thoroughly.
(Claudia Roden. A Book of Middle Eastern Food. Harmondsworth, England, Penguin, 1970)

Such combinations are often in the form of what we’d probably consider to be “dips” but in the earlier books of Middle Eastern cookery would be classed as salads and most likely served as meze, a selection of small dishes rather like the Spanish tapas.
    Beet Yogurt with Herbs from Epicurious.com (http://www.epicurious.com) combines grated cooked beetroot (with an unnecessary description of the cooking process, it dates from the height of the foodies’ roast vegetables craze, circa 2013) and yoghurt, fresh mint, fresh tarragon, oil, and a little red wine vinegar. I’ll forgive the creator this, but I’d prefer lemon juice. And I’d drop the tarragon, the mint will drown it. They’re not compatible just because they’re both green.
    Beetroot Dip (Kiz Guzeli) from the Australian TV station, SBS, is a Turkish recipe, using the food processor for once, instead of indulging in that special up-market, 21st-century form of kitchen martyrdom, pounding in a mortar. Though mind you, the garlic has to be separately grated. Mix with yoghurt and a pinch of salt. Delish! Thank you very much, Esma Koroglu.
    Later. Since I first wrote this SBS has redesigned its website, to the point where you can’t find anything on it bar their current TV programmes. I did manage once to get to the recipes, but I’ve just failed yet again. So I’m reproducing this one here for you. Just as well I put it in my database back when I first found it, eh?

Beetroot Dip (Kiz Guzeli)
3 beetroot;  1 clove garlic; 200g creamy Greek style yoghurt;
olive oil;  pinch of salt
1. Parboil the beetroot, then bake them until soft. Peel and cut into quarters. Process in a food processor or blender until finely chopped.
2. Grate the garlic into the yoghurt, add salt and mix well. Add to the beetroot and stir to combine. Drizzle olive oil over top to finish.

Why the Icon?
Beetroot, served as unpleasantly as possible, has become an Australian icon. The big Australian fast-food chain, Hungry Jack’s, chief rival to the big gold M, prides itself on its offer of hamburger with a slice of tinned beetroot in it, stressing its Australian-ness in its ads.
    As the recipe books show, vinegar has long been a sine qua non if you’re serving beetroot with the meal, but goodness knows why. It was a preservative, of course, and used in pickling, but... Some muddled remembrance of a vinaigrette?? Or, like I said before, the yin and yang thing? Uh…
    I’ve found the recipes, but I haven’t found why. But I’ve stopped looking—that way madness lies.