I can almost hear the fallout now…
“Beets? Eewwww! What were you thinking, writing about beets?!”
Well, what I was thinking was that I wanted to write about a food item that I am not personally very familiar with in hopes of developing a potential fondness for it and hoping that maybe, just maybe, a reader or two would learn something along the way and try something new as well. I must admit that my exposure to beets has been very limited. Limited to only those brightly colored abominations known affectionately by some as pickled beets and called disgusting by countless others. My mother tried her hardest to get me to eat those things in my early years and I held fast, refusing to even give them more than a perfunctory sniff when presented with one. Fast forward 30 years, and here I am, writing about the many virtues (yes-there are many!) of this often misunderstood root vegetable. My, how the times have changed! Want to learn more about beets? Keep reading…
Beets, also known as beetroot, table beets, garden beets or red beets, are an edible, cool season vegetable. They are in season from June through October, making the summer months the perfect time to enjoy this veggie. Both the root and leaves are edible, making it a versatile vegetable to cook with and enjoy. Wild beets are believed to originate from pre-historic North Africa where just the leaves were eaten. It wasn't until the ancient Roman times that humans began consuming the root as well. During the middle ages, beets were often used to treat digestive problems and illnesses associated with the blood. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the beet was introduced to North America. Beet juice is currently used as a coloring for a wide variety of various other food items, including breakfast cereals, frozen novelties, tomato paste and sauces, jellies and jams, desserts and ice cream. It is sometimes used to make wine and ink, as well as added to road salt to more effectively treat winter roads.
You may be asking yourself, “Why should I eat beets?”, right about now. Well, according to research there is a growing number of reasons to give this vegetable a try.
- Beets are a good source of the phytonutrients betanin and vulgaxanthin, which provide anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and detoxification properties. Studies on human tumor cells shown that these compounds can slow down tumor growth and help regulate inflammation specifically in the circulatory system and protect against liver disease.
- Beetroot juice helps to lower blood pressure and may have a positive impact on athletic performance and exercise.
- Beets also contain high amounts of boron, which is related to the production of human sex hormones. They are rich in nitrates, too, which have been shown to boost a sagging libido in both men and women.
- Pregnant women will benefit from the beta-carotene, beta-cyanine, vitamin B and iron beets contain, as they are beneficial to new cell growth and replenishing iron.
- Eating beets may help lower the risk of developing colon, stomach, nerve, lung, prostate, breast and testicular cancers.
After reading about the numerous health benefits of eating beets, are you ready to add them to your diet? If so, choose small to medium size roots that are firm, have smooth skin and a deep, rich color. Take care to avoid roots that are spotted, blemished, bruised wet or shriveled. If you plan on consuming the green, the leaves should be fresh, tender and have a healthy green hue.
When storing beets, there are several easy steps to take to provide optimal flavor and preserve their nutrients. Shake the dirt from the roots, do not wash them. Cut the stems off about two inches from the top of the root. If you plan on using the leaves, store them, unwashed, in a plastic bag with the excess are removed. They should be stored separately from the root vegetable and can be kept in the refrigerator for up to four days before consuming them. Beet roots can be stored in a root cellar (or other cool, dry location) if uncut or in the refrigerator for up to three weeks if the leaves have been removed. Place them in a plastic bag, squeeze out excess air. Wrap tightly. Under no circumstances should you freeze uncooked beets.
The beauty of beets is how versatile they are. The roots can be eaten raw, grilled, boiled, baked or roasted while the leaves can be enjoyed raw or cooked. Cooked beets have a buttery flavor while the leaves are similar to chard or spinach. When steaming beets, limit their cooking time to 15 minutes or less to preserve as much as of their nutritional value as possible. To prepare them for cooking, gently rinse them under cold water and rub them with a paper towel to peel (wear gloves unless you want pink hands) then quarter them for faster cooking. To steam them, fill a steamer with 2 inches of water and bring to a rapid boil. Add the beets and cover. Steam for no more than 15 minutes. They are done when easily pierced with a fork.
For those of you who enjoy gardening and wish to add beets to your crops next year, good news! They are a fairly simple plant to grow, but do require good nutrition. Plant seeds once the ground temperature reaches 50 degrees F-usually in March or April. They should be planted 1/2 inch deep and spaced 1-2 inches apart in soil that has a pH between 5.5 and 6. Beets require high amounts of phosphorous and little nitrogen. To ensure germination, keep the soil moist. Once plants are two inches tall, thin them out to 3-4 inches apart. Mulch and water well as they continue to grow. Your first crop should be able to be harvested between 55 and 65 days.
Whether you choose to grow your own, purchase them from a local farmers market or get them at the grocery, there are a number of ways beets can be enjoyed. I hope you enjoy the following collection of recipes featuring this oft misunderstood root vegetable.