I was one of those weird kids. You know: the kind who enjoyed classical music, read at an early age, and liked pickled beets from a jar.
You read that right—I like beets. Canned, jarred, dried, roasted, sliced raw and even the greens chopped up for sautés and salads. My mom let me eat raw vegetables straight from the garden at a very young age, plus I spent many formative years in Germany, where the beet is practically a national vegetable (the potato being another). Hence, I’ve always had a healthy appreciation for oft-maligned vegetables, though it took me until I was an adult to appreciate grilled squash.
I wish beets didn’t have such a bad reputation. It’s totally undeserved. I do think it’s gotten better, thanks in part to cooking shows and ridiculous chef competitions. Beets are super simple to grow in the garden, so lovely, and believe it or not, is one of the sweetest vegetables you can eat.
The Beauty of Beets
A freshly sliced beet is a surprise. Slivered widthwise from shoulders to root, many beets have incredible concentric circles—the Chioggia beet is well known for its contrasting pink and white circles—which add so much to a dish that you almost need not do anything else to make a plate look gorgeous.
Few other vegetables have such deep, rich color, a good clue to their status as a nutritional heavyweight. I will not deny that they have a deeply earthy flavor. To a naïve tongue, they may initially taste like straight-up dirt, but roasting brings out their incredible sweetness. I know I said in an earlier post that goat cheese was made for a particular herb I like, but what I really meant was that goat cheese is intended to go with beets.
Get All the Vitamins
If you still doubt, here are a few more reasons why you should at least try adding beets to your culinary repertoire:
- Low in calories and carbs. A cup of beets is 59 calories and 13 grams of carbs. You’ll feel fat and happy after a meal that includes beets. They’re also a rich source of vitamin C, iron (the leaves contain more iron than spinach), potassium, magnesium and vitamin B-6.
- Helps lower blood pressure. Beets are a rich source of nitrates, which the body metabolizes into nitric oxide, which in turn relaxes your blood vessels. Weight lifters know that nitric oxide also helps boost short-term muscle function and performance.
- Fights inflammation. A compound called betaine found in beets is known to improve and support liver function and cellular regeneration, which also protects cells from other environmental damage.
- Detox. This is a biggie, and no scientific literature could make me more of a believer. Alert! Eat beets, and you’ll see it in the bathroom a day or so later, either as pink urine and/or as a very satisfying #2. I regard this as a plus. Okay. Potty time over.
Beets are Easy to Grow!
My experience with beets has been this: I stick some seeds in the ground in a sunny spot as soon as the ground has thawed in late March. A week or so later there are some leaves, a few weeks later there are lots of leaves, and about a month or two after planting, I am up to my ears in beets.
You can plant beets in both spring and late summer for a fall crop, and as long as they get sun and water, they really do take care of themselves. But you have to make sure the spot is ready for them. Yeah, there’s almost always a catch.
Beets love a nice soft bed. Don’t we all?
Root vegetables like carrots and beets need fairly fluffy, rock-free soil to avoid becoming warped, ugly things. I add compost to the entire garden several times a year, which not only builds the soil but helps with drainage, fertility and soil texture.
Decide how you want to plant them: If you go with traditional rows, literature recommends 1 inch apart in rows 12 inches apart. I have a small garden, so I prefer to plant in closely spaced grids (about 3 inches apart in every direction) in the same space I will eventually put my tomato transplants; I just leave a little gap wherever I plan on putting a tomato.
The beginning of the impending beet avalanche.
While the tomatoes are getting taller, the beet greens below do this nifty trick of shading the ground with their leafy greens, tag-teaming as both mulch and weed suppressant. The beets are ready to pull just as the tomatoes start to shade them out.
Keep beets well-watered or risk having leathery roots. That would be a crime, and also perpetuate the myth of beet-as-gross-vegetable.
Growing In Containers
If you have the smallest of all gardening spaces like a patio or balcony, you CAN have beets! The nature of well-drained, fluffy potting soil you must use in a container or pot makes for excellent beet-growing conditions. Plus the greens are so beautiful, dark green with red stems (or yellow stems, if you’re growing golden beets), that you’ll have a nice ornamental to look at while you’re awaiting harvest. Container growing requires extra attention to watering, since they dry out faster.
‘Cylindra’ is an unusual carrot-shaped beet that I grow.
Tip to Tail Eating: Cooking With Beets and Greens
The standard thing I do with beets is to roast them, peel them, and toss them with goat cheese and a balsamic vinegar reduction. The goat cheese melts and cloaks the warm beets in creamy tartness, and the balsamic’s acidity and zing perfectly counterbalances the deep sweetness of roasted beets.
Quarter or halve the beets with the skin on and roast in the oven at 425 F for 50 minutes to an hour, or whenever the beets can be easily pierced with a fork. Allow them to cool slightly and then peel them (for a prettier look) or leave the skins on (not as pretty and adds more of that earthy flavor to a dish).
In a bowl, toss the warm beet pieces with a half cup or so of crumbled goat cheese, then drizzle with balsamic reduction. (Learn how to make a balsamic reduction here. A warning: the kitchen will get pretty peppery with vinegar vapor, so be prepared. Maybe wear goggles or a mask. I’m only kinda joking. But really, it’s totally worth it.)
Unlike all those nice photos you see on Pinterest, the goat cheese will melt; it won’t keep its pretty white and fluffy shape. Grate a bit of orange zest over, garnish with parsley, and voila. Bring it to a party and impress.
Yes, the ruby juice can stain like cheap red wine. But there is so much more you can do with beets than popping them into a jar with pickling solution, though as I’ve already admitted, I think they’re awfully good that way.
There is a plethora—a plethora!—of wonderful beet recipes out there. Here are several I found that I like and will be trying soon:
Dark Chocolate Beet Brownies (from The Way to My Family’s Heart)
Grilled Beets with Dilled Cucumbers (from Martha Stewart)
Kale and Roasted Beet Salad with Maple Balsamic Dressing (from Tori Avey)
Come back soon for my next post, which will be dedicated to how to make an amazing Eastern European-inspired slaw with sliced baby beets, fresh red cabbage and Tuscan kale.