With touching faith in the reliability of our own senses, we humans are fond of saying “I’ll believe it when I see it with my own two eyes”. But as anybody who has spent 10 minutes in a criminal court listening to an eye-witness being cross-examined will know, our eyes, ears and memories are notoriously unreliable things. Since a friend went to blacked-out restaurant Dans le Noir this week I have been pondering the relationship between our eyes and our palates. At the aforementioned restaurant, you eat in a completely dark room, leaving your senses of smell and taste to do all the work – and my friend said she had great difficulty in distinguishing whether she was eating, say, carrots or potatoes – or indeed fish or chicken!
It seems she is not alone in this. There have been quite a few studies done on the effect of the visual appearance (specifically the colour) of food on our perception of its taste. For example, test subjects were given a series of fruit flavoured drinks – yellow for a lemon-flavoured one; red for a strawberry flavoured one etc. When the colour matched the flavour, subjects found it very easy to identify the flavours correctly – but when for example the strawberry flavoured drink was coloured green, subjects struggled to identify it. Their eyes had led them to expect one thing while their tastebuds encountered another, leading to mass confusion. In a similar study, subjects were given a number of identically flavoured strawberry drinks but their colours ranged from very pale pink to deep red. Subjects consistently identified the darker coloured drinks as being more strongly flavoured when in act they were no different to the palest ones. Colour plays a key role in food choice by influencing taste thresholds, sweetness perception, food preference, pleasantness, and acceptability. Obviously our caveman ancestors evolved to avoid, say, black foods as this could indicate mould and decay but modern man has apparently inherited their aversion to certain colours. In another experiment, test subjects were fed steak and chips under coloured lights than made the food appear perfectly normal. When the coloured lights were turned off and normal light was used instead, it became apparent that food dye had been used to colour the steak blue and the chips green – at which point most subjects refused to eat any more and some actually felt physically ill.
I used to direct people to these experiments when they asked me how on earth I could not like beetroot. Anybody who has ever peeled a beetroot and ended up looking like a mass-murderer; or served it up at a barbeque next to a potato salad and watched it turn the blameless potatoes a distressing shade of purple will know what I mean. The colour is too reminiscent of blood; too intense, which in turn magnifies one’s perception of the peculiarly earthy taste. Add to this the fact that I don’t like the vinegar that beetroot are often pickled in and you have a perfect storm of vegetable dislike. But the older I got, the more I wanted to like beetroot. It’s super good for you – packed with antioxidants (betacyanin that gives the beetroot its colour), iron, soluble fiber and silica which helps the body to absorb calcium. It’s also one of the few things still growing on the allotment in the dark days of November. For me, the eureka moment with beetroot was the day I roasted them. As with most vegetables, roasting caramelises the natural sugars in beetroot, gives it an appealing texture and makes it far more palatable than any other method of cooking I’ve tried. Once roasted they can be eaten at once or pureed and frozen to last through winter. Or you can puree and use them immediately as I did, in this jewel-coloured and perfectly autumnal risotto.
Other memorable risotto recipes from food bloggers include:
- Margot’s creamy carrot risotto
- Michelle’s leek and bacon risotto
- Kalyn’s barley risotto with mushrooms
- 2 large fresh beetroot
- olive oil for roasting
- 4 shallots, peeled and diced
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
- 750ml chicken or vegetable stock
- 30g + 30g of butter
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 350g risotto rice
- 150ml white wine
- Juice of ½ lemon
- 100g Parmesan, freshly grated
- Salt and black pepper
- 50g fresh goat's cheese
- 40g toasted pine nuts
- wild rocket leaves
- Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Remove the beetroot leaves (don't discard - they can be sautéed like spinach) and wash the beetroot. Rub the beets all over with olive oil and roast in the middle of the oven for about 90 minutes or until the beets are soft when pierced with a sharp knife. Allow the beets to cool, then peel, cube and purée in a food processor together with 50ml of the stock. Set aside.
- Melt 30g of the butter together with the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the shallots and garlic and sauté until the shallots are translucent and soft but do not let them brown. Add the rice and cook for a minute or two, stirring constantly stir so that each grain is well-coated with oil/butter. Add the white wine and keep stirring until the liquid has been absorbed almost completely.
- Add the hot stock a ladleful at a time (probably about 150-200 ml per ladle). Keep stirring until each ladleful has been completely absorbed, but do not let the rice dry out and stick to the pot. Once each ladleful is absorbed, add the next until the stock has all been added. The rice should be soft but each grain should retain some bite in the centre, perfectly al dente, which should take about 20 minutes.
- When the rice is done, stir the lemon juice and beetroot purée into the rice, followed by the Parmesan. Check for seasoning and add sat and pepper as needed. Stir in the final 30g of butter, cut into small cubes.
- Serve in shallow bowls topped with crumbled goat's cheese, toasted pine nuts and wild rocket leaves.