Emblazoned in the collective mind of my generation is an unflattering portrait of the beet: a semi-gelatinous, starchy slice out of a Del Monte can, with a pungent smell and the dreaded “good for you” connotation. I wasn’t lucky enough to come from a family with a strong cooking tradition that included beets, so I was a latecomer to many of the redeeming features this humble, but powerful, root has to offer. Among those redeeming features, for those of us in the mercurial growing climate called the Upper Midwest: nearly uninterrupted availability. In fact, this hardiness was why the beet was originally lifted into a place of prominence in the fields of Eastern Europe (where it continues to flourish). As we head into the home stretch of winter and try to dream dreams of spring, we’re turning the spotlight on this humble root as both a cornerstone of cold-weather eating and a harbinger of warm breezes to come.
With the season upon us, it should be acknowledged immediately that beets, in addition to their nutritive properties, have held a reputation as an aphrodisiac since the time of the Romans, who used them primarily medicinally, and for this purpose. The culprit of cupidity here is the mineral boron, which boosts human sex hormones and is found in concentration in beets. All things being equal, if you’re planning on an exciting night in, I’d consider wine and chocolate as an insurance policy. Can’t hurt.
The main reason that beets tend to cleave the vegetable audience is the aforementioned pungent smell—and flavor, of course, as smell and taste are wedded inextricably. This is caused by geosmin, an organic compound produced by soil-borne microbes. If you don’t like the way a fresh-plowed field smells in spring, you probably don’t like geosmin and may not care for beets. But, some people have the reverse reaction—being strongly drawn to it and other foods that are high in it, such as lettuce, mushrooms and spinach.
So far, I’ve been referring only to the part of the beet that ends up in cans—the root. The green leaves of the beet have, like so many other once-discarded foods, made a revival via the menus of tony restaurants and should not be discounted as a major source of nutrients. Providing the bitter counterpoint to the sugary taproot, the leaves are chock-full of antioxidants and vitamins A and B6. My favorite recipe for more or less any bitter green is a quick walk through a hot pan with olive oil, garlic and crushed red pepper, then a generous dressing of Romano cheese and lemon juice.
Golden and chioggia
While the red beet is all most of us grew up with, varieties like golden and chioggia beets have opened up the field, as it were, for people who may think they don’t like beets but want to get at all these great qualities. Both of these are readily available in our produce departments and have all the sweetness of the common red beet with the signature earthy flavor being a little less prominent. Both of these pair especially well with nuts and fresh cheeses in a salad—use spinach and you’ve got a nutritional powerhouse.
Beets are high in sugar and carbohydrates, so if you need to avoid those, be advised to proceed with caution. If you think you don’t like beets because, like me and so many, you were made to eat a bad example as a kid, take this opportunity to reintroduce yourself to all the things this very versatile vegetable (it can even feature well in desserts like chocolate cake, due to the rich, sweet flavor) has to offer. Our Produce staff will be happy to walk you through our selection and perhaps tip you off to some favorite personal recipes as well!