Haven’t been eating your beets? Don’t beat yourself up (see what we did there), because technically they’re out of season right now. But with spring fast approaching, perhaps it’s time to dig deeper and examine what these little purple monsters have to offer!
Hailing from South Africa, the beet – which is a relative of Swiss chard and a member of the Chenopodiaceae family – was initially cast off in Northern Europe as nothing more than animal chow. However, in the 16th century, Romans began eating the green leaves of the root vegetables and by the 19th century, they had become less picky and began eating the whole darn thing! In doing so, it was discovered that beets were an excellent source of natural sugar – so much so that Napoleon declared them Poland’s primary source of sugar after the British put the squeeze on other sugar sources during the war!
Although here at Mark’s Daily Apple, we wouldn’t normally tout such a high-sugar vegetable, the Beet has a number of redeeming qualities. First, the pigment that gives beets their rich purple hue (betacyanin) has been found to be a powerful cancer-fighting agent, especially for tumors affecting the colon and stomach, and may also mitigate the damaging effects of nitrates (the bad compounds found in hotdogs, bologna and other overly-processed meats!) For pregnant women, meanwhile, just one cup of beets provides 136 micrograms of the B vitamin folate (or about a third of the 400 microgram daily requirement), which is important for fetal development. Rounding out the beets nutrition profile, they are also considered a very good source manganese and potassium – which are important for blood pressure regulation – as well as vitamin C, magnesium, iron, copper and phosphorus.
When selecting beets, look for small- to medium-sized roots that are firm and smooth skinned. While most people recognize beets based on their deep purple color, it should be noted that beets are also available in white, champagne and gold varieties. If you’re planning on eating the beets for its leaves (how very Roman of you!), look for leaves that are bright green and appear fresh and tender.
When storing beets, exercise caution: Despite their tough-as-nails name, beets are actually rather delicate and are susceptible to bruising and can even bleed (Literally. A slash to the skin can cause the red pigment to be released during cooking!) Beet roots can last for up to about four weeks if stored correctly – preferably unwashed in the refrigerator crisper. If storing the leaves alone, wash and store in a plastic bag at the bottom of the fridge.
When its time to handle beets, it might be useful to throw on a pair of rubber gloves – the pigment can easily stain hands. Too late for the gloves advice? The purple coloring can be reversed by rubbing hands with a wedge of lemon or dousing them with lemon juice. From there, it’s best to boil beets with their skin on (to prevent bleeding) and peel them after, or you can also broil or sauté them for inclusion in stir-frys, casseroles and other vegetable-laden dishes. Alternatively, beets are also delicious when added raw to sweeten up vegetable juice (and make it a more palatable pink color!), and are also good when grated and added to salads and soups.