A Beet in Time. Beetroot and Caramelised Onion Relish.

Once upon a time, here in Australia, there was the beetroot. It was boiled, sliced, then pickled, and added to a salad sandwich, placed on top of a hamburger ‘with the lot’ or served in a salad alongside its summer friends, the tomato and Iceberg lettuce. This was the era when Olive Oil came in a small jar from the chemist and was used as a skin moisturiser!  Salad dressings were rare, except for a sharp home- made mayonnaise which was based on condensed milk, vinegar, and mustard.

Many older Australians still favour their beets cooked in this way: after the initial long boiling, the beets are skinned, drained then sliced into a container, while alternately sprinkling each layer with sugar and white vinegar. Not a summer goes by without my mother ( at 94 ) calling for a bunch of beetroot to make this light preserve. This method can be applied to any vegetable for a quick pickle.

New Beetroot relish
Beetroot and onion relish

Like most modern cooks, I enjoy the more earthy taste of the beet without the added sugar and vinegar. Around  8 years ago, fresh-baked beetroot and fetta or goat cheese salad topped with walnuts became the dish to change our view of beetroot. My young visitors devour versions of this salad yet avoid the retro pickled version. The composed beetroot salad has put this old-fashioned tuber back on the culinary map.

beet
Beetroot and onion relish. Easy and fast.

The recipe below for beetroot relish takes the humble root back to the middle ground. The ruby brine of retro sliced beets is absent but some of the agrodolce elements remain. This is now a new favourite for summer sandwiches and rolls or as part of a classic Ploughman’s lunch or as a counterbalance to a rich cheese dish, such as a double baked Stilton Souffle

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 large brown onions ( 800g) sliced thinly
  • 1 1/2 cups ( 330 g) firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups (375ml) cider vinegar
  • 3 large fresh beetroot ( 600g) grated coarsely
  • 1 teaspoon coarse cooking salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper

Method

Heat the oil in a large saucepan; cook onion, stirring about 15 minutes or until the onion is softened and caramelised.

Add remaining ingredients; stir over high heat until sugar dissolves. Bring to the boil. Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally for about 30 minutes or until the beetroot is tender and the relish is thick.

Spoon hot relish into hot sterilised jars. Seal immediately. Label and date jars when  cold. Makes four cups,

Store relish in a cool, dark place for at least 3 weeks before opening. Refrigerate the relish after opening.

recipe from The Australian Women’s Weekly Preserves. 2011.

Sweet relish
Sweet relish

Beetroots and Italy. The Italian word for beetroot, Barbabietola, is so expressive, visually conveying the trailing beard, or barba, from the end of the bietola (beet/silver beet/chard) and its root. Try saying barbabietola, placing an equal stress on each vowel- it’s a little tongue twister for many, like the start of the old Beach Boys song, Ba-Ba-Ba, Ba-Barbara-Ann. Beets were favoured in the Roman era and used for food and medicine. These days, Europe grows 120 million tons of sugar beets and produces 16 million tonnes of white sugar, extracting a sufficient quantity to meet 90% of demand. This is a different crop to the red variety. While the edible barbabietola may occasionally turn up in a risotto, it’s use as a relish is not part of Italian culinary history. It is occasionally used in recipes, however most of these are modern and derivative, appearing in magazines such as Donna Moderna or Sale e Pepe and not in traditional collections.

barbabietola dal orto.
Barbabietola dal orto.

47 thoughts on “A Beet in Time. Beetroot and Caramelised Onion Relish.”

  1. Intriguing post. I love beets, though I hated them when I was young. The sugar beet is not the same time of beet though. It is tan/white instead of red and is one of the main cash crops grown by farmers in the area of Minnesota in which I grew up. Sugar beets are a commercial rather than edible crop. I don’t think you would want to pickle one. 🙂

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  2. You have brought out some nostalgic memories with your talk of beets, Francesca. My Mum always (and only) served us pickled beets so that was all I knew when I came to Australia. I was so shocked to see people eating them on their burgers! And telling me ‘the Americans eat burgers like this’ –REALLY? I don’t think so! Anyway, we both got an education over that one. You have reminded me to make some beets soon, haven’t had them for a while. I’m practicing saying the Italian version…. xx

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    1. I’ve just discovered that beets are high in iron so expect a few more recipes over summer.
      One of my favourite things, when I was an early vegetarian in this land of meat, was going to an old fashioned hamburger shop and asking for a hamburger with the lot, minus the burger. This always raised an eyebrow but it turned out to be a good lunch- a grilled roll, with hot fried onions, cheese, tomato, lettuce, a fried egg and slices of beetroot. I would struggle to eat that combo now. I loved the old school Australian burgers with the lot- home made and full of stuff. The new fashion for burgers is not my scene.

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  3. Love beetroot and really like the look of this relish, even tho’ I am a bit of a grouch as far as sugar is concerned. This seems rather like what was on my plate as a child in Northern Europe: nowhere as tart as the concoction I first met coming to Australia. Love the proportion of onions to beetroot! Shall definitely try one wet Sunday with a wee bit of time on my hands: but, once cooked and sealed, roughly how long would the unopened relish last?

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    1. I think 3 to 6 months is my estimate, but perhaps longer. I made 5 small jars in December and now have 2 left, gifting a couple along the way. It does sound a bit Northern European, a bit Borscht-ish in a jar. It is really nice with cheese, on a crust of sourdough. I’m making a new one soon with apples- and will report Eha.

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      1. In that case I’ll ‘do’ the full amount! I’ll easily get thru’ 2 small jars a month . . . . Please do let us know about the beetroot + apple – I think I have eaten this combo before [made by others] and liked it immensely! [Am smiling: no problems with pronunciation – if one can pronounce Estonian Italian is impossible to mispronounce and vv 🙂 !]

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        1. Estonian would be more challenging to pronounce for sure. Sometimes the rhythm of an Italian word, when long, gets lost on ‘Aussie’ ears, especially when words end in ‘ola’ as in Beitola. Australians like to put a stress on the ola bit. You would be surprised how many people stuff up Italian pronunciation, whilst at the same time, insisting that they are right. Most errors in pronunciation come with the confusions over the ‘ci’ and ‘gi’ sounds as well as the ‘sci’ and the ‘schi’ sounds, as well as the ‘gn’ sound and the ‘gli’ sound.

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  4. Your relish sounds delicious! I will definitely be trying it. In my Italian Australian family I wasn’t familiar with beetroot. After my mum passed away and my dad remarried an “Australian” lady, I was introduced to jellied beetroot! Luckily I left home, grew some beetroots and roasted them…..now I love beetroot!

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    1. Not a bad idea, although I find balsamic vinegar a bit overwhelming at times- however I do use a little drizzle on baked beets. Beets are now so fashionable- I expect to see them feature more as those who didn’t grow up with that everyday pickle, discover how good they are. Nice chopped up small and baked with carrots, onions, and sweet potatoes in Evo.

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      1. Leave them in their skins, wrap them in foil and roast at 160c until they are easily pierced with a skewer. Peel and cut into thinnish wedges to serve. The favour is quite intense cooked this way. Makes a great salad chilled and tossed in nat yoghurt.

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  5. Happy New Year, Fransesca! I, personally, never much liked beet in vinegar, which is the way they were served in my childhood. But I love beet baked (after initial boiling to tenderise) with a bit of cream and a little grated lemon

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  6. I like that idea of grated lemon Sue. I also bake them the same way as Sandra when baking them for a salad. I then toss them in a little olive oil and lemon juice or balsamic, then just before serving, add cubes of fetta and torn mint, or sometimes some walnut pieces, also quickly baked for a few minutes. I’ve watched two year olds devour this salad.

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  7. Hi Francesca, in retrospect, over the past few decades, we’ve all experienced the stain-ridden beetroot being slowly deleted from our salad sandwiches etc. However, about five years ago I purchased a heirloom/heritage variety of white and/or yellow beetroot seeds from Diggers’ Club Vic. I had a 95% success rate from seed to seedling. Albeit they took almost a season to mature, the outcome was such a boon as we could grow them for six months of the year in WA. I taste-tested them on all my friends – freshly grated with coriander and fresh lime juice and salad dressing was a popular summertime treat but the hit was pickled and the making of relishes – YUMMY!! No more white clothing with purple dribbles. The white/yellows taste exactly the same as the red as should they be used/cooked or preserved. As much as the red is definitely a colour stimuli – the white/yellow could prove to be an alternative to messes but the positive thing is that they will grow even in the wet tropics – go figure!!
    Happy New Year to you Mr. Tranquillo and la familia.
    Best wishes from Peter & Steve in FNQ, where we are paying 50cents for a R2D2 mango.

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      1. Along with my freshly-pulled beets I entered our white/orange beetroot relish onto a local agricultural show in Walkaway (pop. 90) near Geraldton in WA. The judges (Nancy a 92 yo farmer – Norma a 84 yo supplier of flowers to the local Anglican Church and Edith a hanger-on) sliced a fresh entrants (Russian heirloom variety) to observe woodiness, juiciness and consistency – needless to say that they didn’t get the “heirloom/heritage:”concept but gave me second prize (there being only one other entrant) and I won a Bunnings 10 metre hose (no attachments included) and a $5 voucher to said store to be spend at my leisure – gotta love a rural aggie show.

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  8. I love me a Beetroot and always buy the golden beetroots when I can as they are so beautiful roasted, however, the kids almost vomit every time I try to re-introduce them. A very cool Italian pronunciation indeed, this relish would be tops with a veggie burger. Making me hungry!

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  9. I think beetroot is one of the most underrated veggies we have. I love just grated like carrot, pickled, roasted and hopefully soon in this relish. Maybe served as a side in a nice little crystal dish!

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  10. After a childhood aversion to tinned beetroot my adult tastebuds now love anything beet. Many years ago, pre-internet- a work colleague who moonlighted a cake baker extraordinare made the most amazing beetroot cake, which was unusual for its time, and refused to share the recipe. Now it’s common to put veges in cakes, and recipe versions are are all over the www. I love them simply baked drizzled with good vinegar and goats cheese. Your relish will become part of my repertoire… I just needed this prompt… as with so many things on my to-do list.

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  11. Okay, you are officially my #1 favourite blog. I can’t wait to use this recipe for the new beets I bought yesterday. Plus, that is some beautiful, beautiful photography. You have really nice kitchenware 🙂

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