a tale in which i face my fears: beef and beetroot patties

beef and beetroot patties
It was cold and dark and we were standing in the pitch black of a field in the middle of the countryside. No ambient light, just a massive bonfire (for it was Bonfire Night), a few torches and the headlights of a Landrover. I welcomed the mug of soup handed to me through the dank November darkness and thanked the farmer's wife for the kind thought and the hot homemade soup. 

The poor woman was a bit taken aback by the strength of my next reaction which was possibly a little melodramatic. She was most definitely offended by my reaction to her homemade borscht, as I spat it out. "It's just borscht!" she cried. "Its beetroot," I spat, "it tastes of hot, sweet mud. Ugh".

I know, it was rude and my manners have improved in the past 20 years. But what the farmer's wife was not to know that I have a fear and loathing of beetroot. I am still scarred by one of my earliest childhood memories of my father, Henry, eating a sandwich of his own making. One side was piled high with piccalilli and the other side with pickled beetroot. He would reassemble these pickle mountains until they looked nothing so much as a really, really bad accident. And please don't remind me of the smell. See what I mean? I am scarred I tell you!

In his entertaining series of essays The Man Who Ate Everything, the American food critic Jeffrey Steingarten writes about ridding himself of some of his food prejudices and why he decided to do it:

I, formerly a lawyer, was appointed food critic of Vogue magazine. As I contemplated the heavy responsibilities of my new post, I realized how inadequate I was to the honor, for I, like everybody I knew, suffered from a set of strong and arbitrary likes and dislikes regarding food. I feared that I was no better than an art critic who becomes nauseated by the color yellow, or suffers from red-green color blindness. At the time, I was friendly with a respected and powerful editor of cookbooks who so detested the flavor of cilantro (coriander leaf) that she brought a pair of tweezers to Mexican and Indian restaurants and pinched out every last scrap of this herb before she would take a bite. Imagine the dozens of potential Julia Childs and M.F.K. Fishers whose books she pettishly rejected, whose careers she snuffed in their infancy! I vowed not to follow in her footsteps.

raw mixture - isn't it pretty!
Steingarten vowed to learn to like if not love the things he usually avoided. He tried to carefully rid himself of all food biases and prejudices, teaching himself to love lard, Greek food, ant eggs, and Indian desserts!

As someone who has never liked to deny myself anything, I thought that this was a really good approach to life. So I too have attempted to rid myself of some prejudices. I have learned to love couscous. Nothing will ever make me learn to love bananas. I used to include beetroot in that statement too. But over the years my tastes have changed and my horror of beetroot has mellowed from avoidance, through indifference to mild tolerance.

But in denying myself beetroot, I am denying myself a wonderful British root vegetable of exquisite if indelible jewel-like colour, packed full of vitamins and goodness, even if it is, I would posit, an acquired taste.

And since I am somewhat greedy and all about gratifying my tastes, like Jeffrey Steingarten I decided to acquire the taste for beetroot.

Apparently if you are presented with and eat something you don't like, some 15 to 20 times, then you won't hate it quite as much. And that definitely worked for me with the soapy flavour of coriander that used to taste like washing-up liquid and made me feel faintly ill. Perhaps it would work with beetroot?

Over the years, there are several food writers and food bloggers that have made me actually want to try beetroot. Dominic at Belleau Kitchen's recent posting on beetroot soup made me forget my horror of borscht! Isn't this gorgeous? And what about this charmingly pretty chocolate, beetroot and apple bundt cake? I feel as if Dom has given me the kick I needed. That combined with the memory of Jonathan Lovekin's beautiful picture in Nigel Slater's Tender I for lamb meatballs with beetroot, sent me striding off to the market and returning home with a large brown paper bag full of beetroot. (I am afraid I haven't been able to track down the picture on the internet, so I suggest you rush off and get yourself a copy of Tender!)

adly the minced lamb I thought I had nesting at the back of the freezer turned out to be minced beef. Hey ho, just an opportunity to play around with Nigel Slater's recipe and the ingredients. I am sure he won't mind! I have tried to find a link to the original recipe either on his own site or on The Guardian for whom he writes, but haven't. Just buy the book, it is definitely worth it. Or borrow from your local library, you won't be disappointed.

What goes well with beetroot? Well tangy flavours such as goats’ cheese or vinegar. capers and gherkins work well. What about horseradish or peppery watercress? Anchovy? Cumin? Nuts? In the end, I settled for a few capers with the beef and beetroot and stirred some chopped watercress into a homemade tartare dipping sauce.

What I hadn't realised before adapting this was that there is a classic Swedish dish with a bit of a Russian influence called Biff à la Lindström which are patties of beef, potatoes, beetroot and capers. I used bulgur wheat instead of spuds, but I am guessing the end result was the similar, if completely accidental!

By the way, just a word of warning, this was spectacularly messy to make (don't wear white) . . . but what you may be more interested in, did it taste like? (Particularly as an avowed beetroot hater).

It was . . . GORGEOUS. Not quite Archimedes jumping from his bath and running starkers down the road, but pretty wonderful if I say so myself. A truly gorgeous combination of savoury beefy flavours, earthy sweet beetroot and tart capers. I shall definitely be making these again and they may well be on my Christmas party menu!

Makes about 8 patties - 2 patties per person makes a great starter
Skill level: Easy

1 tbsp bulgur (cracked) wheat
150g raw beetroot, grated (pr 1 x root about the size of a small orange)
1 x small English onion, grated
300g beef mince
2 x garlic cloves, very finely chopped
2 tsp fresh dill, chopped
1 tsp fresh tarragon, chopped
2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
1 tbsp capers, very finely chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper
melted butter (to cook)
tartare sauce (to serve)
watercress (to serve)


  1. Grate the beetroot. I also gave the grated beetroot another quick chop with my mezzaluna for a slightly finer texture, but this is not essential.
  2. Combine the grated beetroot with onion, garlic and uncooked bulgur wheat. Set aside for about 15 minutes. This allows the bulgur wheat to absorb any excess beetroot or onion liquid. The grains will swell and lose their slightly crunchy texture. In Nigel Slater's recipe, he cooked then drained the bulgur wheat, but I prefer to let the grains absorb the vegetable juice.
  3. Stir in the herbs, seasoning and capers.
  4. Form the patties - a generous tablespoon each. This is the point where things got really messy (we are talking parts of the kitchen I didn't realise were in reach!). When you have formed the patties, give them a good squeeze to get rid of any excess vegetable juice. The juice will be the most beautiful and vibrant purple pink colour and could end up splattered all over you or the walls. I had a nice abstract artwork covering my kitchen cabinets, the kettle, the cooker, the shelves . . . but fortunately both me and the kitchen have wipe-clean surfaces!
  5. Line a baking tray with lightly greased grease-proof paper and place the patties on the tray. Cover with cling film and refrigerate for about 1 hour to firm up.
  6. Preheat the oven to 180C / Gas Mark 4.
  7. Nigel Slater suggests frying the patties until very lightly browned on each side, then baking in the oven for a further 20 minutes. Knowing my delicate hand at frying (NOT!) I decided to keep my patties on their greased baking tray. I then brushed each patty with a little melted butter and baked in the hot oven for about 25 minutes.
  8. You will probably need to taste the patties to see if they are cooked because they will become quite dark!
  9. Add a little chopped watercress to some homemade tartare sauce and serve with the patties.
  • Nigel Slater used a greater ratio of beetroot to lamb in his recipe. I erred on the side of caution just in case I didn't like the end result. He also used more dill and served his with a dipping sauce of yoghurt, cucumber, mint and capers
  • The next day, a couple of leftover patties made a fabulous sandwich with hummus and pickle. Weird but delicious!


Madame Poirier said...

Next time, try roasting beetroot with a little olive oil, balsamic and garlic - serve with rocket and goat cheese, YUM!

Karen S Booth said...

Such a funny post, and I also remember my dad having Beetroot sandwiches and sometimes with piccalilli too! I love Beetroot as it happens.....and especially with beef. Dad used to make a great Beetroot accompaniment - roast Beetroot with balsamic vinegar, olive oil and garlic, it was a favourite with all of us, we served if hot as you would carrots etc. Karen PS: love your ruby red patties!

Jenny Eatwell said...

Well done you for facing some of your fears! Poor old beetroot didn't really deserve to be so vilified - but I can understand your emotions, considering where they came from. Beetroot & piccalilli sandwiches - *shudder* Now, have you ever noticed the Beetroot Chocolate Cake that I make? http://jennyeatwellsrhubarbginger.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/chocolate-and-beetroot-cake-deep-moist.html Now that is one of beetroot's seriously brilliant triumphs. I commend it to you!

Anonymous said...

Cold roast beef, horseradish, thinly sliced apple, thinly sliced boiled beetroot and watercress sandwiches. (Another Nige recipe, if I remember rightly.)