Beetroot. The root of the beet. Beta vulgaris. Doesn't exactly resonate with romance, does it? But actually, since Roman times beetroot has been considered a potent aphrodisiac. Murals featuring beetroot have been found on the walls of Pompeii's brothels, and seeds and other traces uncovered in the excavations there (insert your own Vesuvius eruption gag here).
The plant's aphrodisiac qualities have been attributed to high levels of the mineral boron, which is thought to play a key role in the production of human sex hormones. So forget your oysters and your ginseng, beetroot is the true food of Aphrodite.
Now that we've rescued the red stuff's reputation from unfair associations with school food and murky jars of pickle lurking ominously in the darkest corners of unreconstructed pubs, we'll move on to the taste - and it is fantastic. Beetroot is sweet but earthy and goes perfectly vwith cheese, particularly the melty soft types like goat's cheese or mozzarella.
You can sauté it, roast it, grate it into cakes - it's incredibly versatile and, for those who are recoiling in horror, not nearly as scary as it looks. Well, apart from the Lady Macbeth hand scrubbing moment after you've peeled it. For a really simple treat, slice it really thinly, brush with oil and roast in a hot oven until you get sweet beetroot crisps, or bake it whole in the oven in foil with balsamic vinegar and serve with couscous.
Beetroot is more usually associated with the depths of winter, but it's in spring and summer that it is at its best and sweetest. If you get them whole, with leaves and stems still attached, make sure you use those too - swiss chard is basically the leaves of a beet plant. Use it as you would any spring greens - but if you are going to store the vegetables for a while, cut the leaves off and store them separately because they draw moisture away from the root, drying it out.
So, as a form of aversion therapy for all those who still feel beetroot is just a little scary, here is an entire three course meal of beetroots. Yes, including pudding, thanks to Nigel Slater's recipe. If you want to go the whole hog, you could even drink a glass of beetroot juice with it.
Borscht - beetroot soup - is one of those recipes of which everyone has their own version. Do add the red wine vinegar and brown sugar though, without them it's just a bit bland. Red wine also adds richness, and I've also experimented with adding shot of vodka at the end. This is one of those soup recipes that often tastes even better the next day.
4 large beetroots
½ red cabbage
1 stick celery
2 red onions
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1.2 litres of stock
2 teaspoons of brown sugar
Sour cream to serve
Fry the onion, garlic and celery in olive oil for a few minutes, until soft. Add some caraway seeds and a bay leaf or two.
Grate the beetroot and carrot and shred the cabbage finely (your knuckles will thank you for using a food processor at this point). Add the beetroot mixture and stock to a large sauce pan, with the red wine vinegar. Simmer for around half an hour. Add the brown sugar to counterbalance the red wine vinegar (you may want to add more than the 2 teaspoons)
Some people liquidise it at this point to a thick consistency, but I think it's nicer served as it is, with a big dollop of sour cream, fresh chives and a few more caraway seeds sprinkled on top.
Beetroot, chickpea and halloumi salad
4 beetroot, peeled and cut into wedges
1 package of halloumi
2/3 cloves of garlic
½ can of chickpeas
2 fresh tomatoes
Large handful fresh spinach
Pinch of tumeric
Roast the beetroot in a hot oven (with a healthy amount of olive oil and salt and pepper) until tender - this will depend on the size of the wedges but will probably be about 45 minutes.
Fry the onion with the spices, then put in half a can of chickpeas with two diced tomatoes and enough stock to thinly cover. Season. Simmer for about 15 minutes until the liquid starts to thicken a little.
When it's nearly done, fry the halloumi until browned, then add 200g of spinach to the chickpea mixture and stir in. Serve with the beetroot wedges and halloumi.
Nigel Slater's beetroot seed cake
225g self-raising flour
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 scant teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
180ml sunflower oil
225g light muscovado sugar
150g raw beetroot juice of half a lemon
75g sultanas or raisins
75g mixed seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, linseed)
For the icing:
8 tablespoons icing sugar
Lemon juice or orange blossom water
Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4. Lightly butter a rectangular loaf tin (20cm x 9cm x 7cm deep, measured across the bottom) then line the bottom with baking parchment. Sift together the flour, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder and cinnamon. Beat the oil and sugar in a food mixer until well creamed then introduce the beaten egg yolks one by one, reserving the whites for later.
Grate the beetroot coarsely and fold into the mixture, then add the lemon juice, raisins or sultanas and the assorted seeds. Fold the flour and raising agents into the mixture while the machine is turning slowly.
Beat the egg whites till light and almost stiff. Fold gently but thoroughly into the mixture with a large metal spoon (a wooden one will knock the air out). Pour the mixture into the cake tin and bake for 50-55 minutes, covering the top with a piece of foil after 30 minutes. Test with a skewer to see if done. The cake should be moist inside but not sticky. Leave the cake to settle for a good 20 minutes before turning out of its tin on to a wire cooling rack.
To make the icing, sieve the icing sugar and stir in enough lemon juice or orange blossom water to achieve a consistency where the icing will run over the top of the cake and dribble slowly down the sides (about three teaspoonfuls), stirring to remove any lumps. Drizzle over the cake and scatter with poppy seeds. Leave to set before eating.