Everyone has those one or two foods that they couldn’t stand in childhood and then somehow magically grew to love as an adult. My personal “Exhibit A” is Brussels sprouts. I wouldn’t have touched those things for love nor money when I was young, and now I’m basically ready to marry them (#allthebrusselssprouts). One food that certainly does not hold that distinction for me however is the beet. God bless them, their beautiful color alone should be enough to merit some kind of affection from me, but I just never got into them for some reason. And yet I will not let that stand in the way of a good discussion about all the great redeeming qualities this little veg has. Love ’em or hate ’em, this week, we’re talking about the beet…
Now any food that has been around for millennia will have origins that will be somewhat shrouded in myth or even speculation. But the consensus on Beta vulgaris is that it began somewhere in North Africa, later spreading to the Middle East and India. It is also believed that in the beginning, people only ate the green leafy tops of beets, something that is done a little less often today. It was those hot shots in the Roman Empire who began to eat the actual root that we’re all familiar with, and helped to continue its spread around the Mediterranean. It made its way to Northern Europe and what is now Russia and the Scandanavian countries later, where it was used more often to feed livestock than people. It wasn’t until the very early 19th century that it garnered some acclaim for its secondary use – making sugar. As that story goes, apparently there was a bit of a sugar problem (among other kinds) going on in France, so Napoleon declared that beets could be used throughout his empire to replace the standard cane sugar. Not long after that, they were introduced to American shores, where, by the way, more beets are now produced than anywhere in the world. Take that, Napoleon!
That’s quite a whirlwind history for a little root vegetable. And I was intrigued to learn just how many ways beets could be eaten. No kiddies, beets aren’t just for borscht or salads anymore! They can be eaten raw, roasted, boiled, steamed, pickled or blended (as in a smoothie). And that’s just the roots; the greens are, as the ancients knew, also edible. Try them out in almost any recipe that calls for chard or spinach. My research in particular uncovered a couple of interesting recipes: one that I had heard of (but honestly never tried) from the folks at Taste of Home, and one that had never even occurred to me from those crazy, lovable kids over at Saveur (although I’m still a little unsure about what it might taste like.)
There are, of course several types of beets, ranging in color from the more typical dark red to white; there is even a red and white striped one, called the Chioggia. While they are available all year round, their primary growing season lasts from June through October. They are suitable if purchased with or without their greens attached, but if you do buy them “greens-on”, you should remove them as soon as you get them home, as they can drain the beets of moisture. It is recommended that they be washed before cooking them, and peeled after doing so. Beets can be refrigerated in a plastic bag for at least a couple of weeks.
So what about the good-for-you aspect? I mean, it’s a vegetable, right? Your mom may have tried to make you eat it as a kid, but it was only because she loved you: beets are loaded down with a variety of health-supporting goodies, including their own special kind of antioxidant whose pronunciation and spelling I simply cannot get a handle on, so you’ll just have to trust me. But there are beneficial elements that are pronounceable, like “detoxifying”; beets are really good for your digestive system. They also support healthy blood pressure, help stave off heart disease and birth defects, and as some medical research has shown, even certain types of cancers. And don’t forget their amazing anti-inflammatory properties, too, good news for all the arthritis sufferers out their (including yours truly.) And to top it all off (no pun intended), the leafy green portion is high in lutein, which is an ace in maintaining good ocular health. The two superstar performers in beets are folate and manganese, which come in at 34% and 28% of your daily RDA, respectively. Folate is key in the diets of expectant moms (see the aforementioned birth defect prevention above), and manganese can’t be beat for aiding in healthy bone support and blood sugar stabilization.
Even with all these high marks, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to welcome beets into my diet with open arms…but I am willing to negotiate! Leave a comment below and let me know if you have a love – or hate – relationship with beets.