Beetroot gratin is the dish where the beet’s tendency to leach colour over everything works to its advantage: it looks pretty!
The colour purple
Beetroot is an awkward customer. Until not so long ago you couldn’t buy it in any other form than cooked, drenched in vinegar and vacuum packed, at least in the supermarkets. It’s not that it is particularly hard to cook: turnips never soften and they are sold raw, ditto carrots, swedes or turnips.
It’s because it is an awfully bolshy vegetable which, like a cat, likes to mark his territory and that will include the kitchen worktop, chopping board, your hands and possibly clothes.
But if you own a pair of disposable gloves (don’t we all these days?), you can enjoy it in many different shapes and forms as it is an awkward, but a versatile ingredient.
How to prepare beetroot?
It is delicious raw, especially new, small beets or rainbow varieties such as chioggia. Either very thinly sliced or coarsely grated, raw beetroot needs decisive seasoning: lots of salt and pepper, garlic, some sweetness and a good deal of acidity. It loves herbs: mint and dill or sorrel and chives. And it’s easy to guess it is incredibly healthy eaten like this.
To cook it, roasting in foil is the easiest. Trim the stems not too harshly so the juices don’t escape, wrap the beets in a foil package and roast for an hour or longer, depending on the size of the vegetables.
You can sprinkle them with coarse salt and drizzle with oil before wrapping in foil, telling yourself what a difference it is going to make to the flavour, but honestly, it won’t do much.
What makes the difference is tossing it with the dressing whilst still warm, for a cooked beet salad. Good news is that roasted whole beetroots keep hot forever, like potatoes, so they can be prepared ahead.
Similar flavours can be mixed in the dressing for cooked beetroot salads as for raw, plus of course it goes with soft cheeses like avocado and toast. Goat cheese and feta are primarily the classic choice but also seasoned cream cheese or mozzarella and even shaved aged Parmesan work very well.
Cooking vegetables au gratin
Au gratin is the cooking process which turns healthy, boring vegetables into a delicious albeit less healthy dish. Virtuous parsnip or celeriac are drowned in cream, smothered with cheese and baked till gorgeously bubbly, browned or crispened on top.
There is normally no need to pre-boil or blanch the vegetable before gratineeing – it needs to be diced or thinly sliced in case of particularly tough customers like swede or turnip. Potatoes can be cooked like this as well of course, and the dish is called potatoes dauphinoise, except the latter doesn’t usually contain cheese.
How to cook beetroot gratin?
Beetroot is one of those notoriously tough customers but if sliced thinly, it will cook beautifully and tender in the bake. To help it along, I like to season the slices with salt, pepper and a little vinegar and let them stand for half an hour, to marinate.
I use rainbow beets in this instance, but ordinary crimson ones are precisely as good.
The cream for the gratin is simmered and infused with garlic and dill, but if in a rush, you can stir the aromatics into it cold.
It will look lovely if you arrange the beetroot in a fanned, concentric circles but if you pile it in messily it won’t affect the taste. Though on second thoughts apparently visuals are responsible for nearly 50% of the taste experience so perhaps take five minutes to arrange those beets…
The beetroot gratin takes about forty minutes to bake, covered tightly with foil, and I like to uncover it for extra ten minutes, with Parmesan scattered over the surface for crunch and a frothy effect.
It is a really indulgent and gorgeous side for fish, but you could have it on its own, with a baked potato perhaps, slipped into the oven as you start the preparation.
More beetroot recipes
You could make a vegetarian centrepiece out of the roasted beetroot casserole with herbs and garlic, with just baked potatoes on the side.
If you get hold of the less common variety of beet like chioggia, have it raw in a herby salad.
Beetroot is one of those juicy vegetables that add moisture – and colour – to bread. Beetroot bread is certainly an impressive loaf.
More gratin recipes
Parsnips are heavily underused in our everyday cooking, I think. They make a lovely gratin, seasoned with garlic, thyme and kafir lime leaves.
The same process can be applied to celeriac, plus a grating of nutmeg.
Or you could combine vegetables in a gratin, like the potato and fennel one, and have it as a standalone main dish.