Nobody likes beets Dwight! Why don’t you grow something that everybody does like? You should grow candy! I’d love a piece of candy right now…not a beet.
-Michael Scott, The Office
Beta vulgaris (Latin)
Beets have been farmed for at least 5,000 years. Ancient growers in the Mediterranean region used them as a storage vegetable to provide sustenance during the winter months. Migration moved them north into Europe, and they were subsequently brought to the United States by European settlers.
The sugar beet, which is cultivated for its sucrose, was originally discovered by a German scientist and developed as a sugarcane substitute during the late 18th Century, when sugarcane sources from the West Indies were cut off in Europe. Thankfully for us and all beet lovers, our garden variety table beet has flourished.
Beets are a root vegetable consisting of leaves which attach to a root bulb. The bulb can vary greatly in size, with table beets being smaller than sugar beets. Despite their high sugar content (table beets contain 10% sugar and sugar beets 20%), they are, much to our delight, a low-calorie food. And if high levels of Vitamin B, C, calcium and folic acid aren’t enough motivation for you to indulge and treat your body to some super-nutrition, their antioxidants called betalain have been studied for their cancer-fighting qualities. Healthy and delicious, beets are arguably one of the most underrated vegetables in the garden.
Speaking of gardening, what better place to get to the root of beets than the Black Dirt region of New York’s Hudson Valley? Listen to our tour of Rogowski Organic Farms , where we get our shoes all muddy, pick our dinner right from the ground, and connect with five beet varieties and their veggie friends. We totally dig the farm sounds in that podcast.
The beet was originally grown for its leafy greens. Leaf beet (more commonly known as Swiss chard) is used mostly for its leaves, and table beets are grown mostly for their roots, though the leaves are also edible. There are several varieties and colors of table beets: Italian heirloom Chioggas are known for their candy cane-like striped appearance, and we think they are absolutely gorgeous. Golden and albino beets are similar to red beets in all aspects except for their red pigment. Bonus: They will not turn your hands purple, but are equally delicious.
Smaller beets are more tender; once they grow larger than 3 inches in diameter, they can be too fibrous and tough. For the freshest beets, chose firm ones that still have their tops.
Our test kitchen is blushing with beet juice, and we like to approach these little beauties in a way that embraces their color, texture and sweetness. Even if you’re a beet-hater, we challenge you to give this earthy root another go. Though they may be viewed as an old-fashioned food, found on salad bars and as cans of pickled, sliced magenta discs of something that may have once been a fresh vegetable, the inherent earthy, pungent flavors of fresh beets evoke the romantic food-lover in us. Yes, you read that correctly. There is something so pure about that flavor — and it’s one people tend to love or hate — that we find beets to be the closest thing to the taste of earth itself.
When cooking beets, clean the skins with a soft vegetable brush, but leave the skin and a portion of the stalk intact. Roasted beets are as simple as heating your oven to 350 F, then adding olive oil, salt, pepper, chopped fresh rosemary and some love for 45-60 minutes (depending on their size). You can also peel, chop, and saute beets with balsamic vinegar to give them caramelized color or GBD (golden brown & delicious).
And while cooked beets are scrumptious, they can also be savored raw in salad or slaw; just shred them like carrots and dress with a tangy vinaigrette. Be careful though, as the red variety will give color to anything they touch — including hands, clothing or light-colored countertops.
If you’re not yet convinced of their deliciousness, try Herbed Mascarpone Beet Napoleons with Walnut Oil and you might be singing the praises of beets all the way to your farmer’s market. There are also many variations of colorful eastern European soup made with beets called Borscht; give our Silky Spring Beet Soup a try, which can be served hot or cold. Get your beet on.
Photo: Kalle Guinn