Beets: The Perfect Vegetable

Reader Contribution by Carole Coates
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Packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, it’s hard to beat beets for healthy eating. But there’s even more to like about beets. For the gardener, they’re easy to grow. They store well. Did you know beets are a zero-waste veggie? Every part of the plant is edible: root, stems, and leaves. Why, they’re so versatile you can even use beets to dye fabric.

Home canned beets retain top flavor and quality for a solid year. Photo by Carole Coates

Health Benefits of Beets

Beets can lower blood pressure; promote eye, respiratory, and bone health; build immunity and increase stamina; and fight premature aging. There’s evidence they may even help prevent cancer. They’re highly nutritious, abundant in phytochemical compounds, low in fat and calories.

Beet Varieties

Some beet varieties are perfectly round. Others grow long, cylindrical carrot-like roots. They may be fire engine red, deep magenta, yellow-orange, or white. Some have alternating rings of color—pretty in a salad.

McGregor’s Favorite is one of my favorite beet varieties. Photo by Carole Coates

If you keep a garden, consider growing several varieties of beets. The leaves will create a lush visual sensation ranging from light green to purplish-black. Check seed catalogs for the best selection.

Growing Beets

A cool season vegetable, beets are best planted up to four weeks before your area’s average last frost date. Early planting’s always a plus, in my opinion. You beat the heat and frenzy of the garden’s busiest season.

Beets are subject to the same pests as other leafy and root vegetables, but I’ve had very few issues. I think of them as a plant-’em-and-forget-’em plant, the best kind for me. The one caveat to this philosophy is that beets do need to be thinned. Since the ‘seed’ you plant is actually a cluster containing anywhere from two to five seeds, you’ll get several beet seedlings in each planting spot. Just use scissors to snip the weakest seedlings, leaving two inches between the remaining plants. Those thinnings make a tasty salad addition.

Harvesting

Young greens make the best eating, so during growing season feel free to snip off a few of each plant’s small leaves, leaving the taller ones intact to support root growth.

Beet roots are ready to harvest six to eight weeks following planting. You can pick immature roots or wait until they grow a little bigger if you want a weightier harvest. But remember that, like the leaves, smaller means more tender. If you leave them in the ground too long, they become woody. When you see the beet’s top above ground, it can be pulled.

Storage

Wash beet greens and roots before storage and pat dry.

Roots will keep in the vegetable drawer of your refrigerator for up to three months. Cut the root from the stems, leaving an inch or two of stem so the root won’t bleed. Store in a plastic storage bag, removing as much air as possible.

Beet greens can be stored in the same manner as other greens—wash, shake or pat dry, wrap in a paper or cloth towel, and store in a tightly sealed storage bag for up to two weeks in your fridge’s vegetable bin.

Eating Beets

Tender greens need just a few minutes in a very small amount of water to reach peak flavor. Avoid overcooking. Season lightly with salt. That’s all they need.

Roots can be boiled, roasted, or pickled. Smaller tender ones can be eaten raw. Simply peel and shred into a salad for a burst of color and flavor. Beets pair well with gorgonzola or goat cheese, apples, walnuts, or oranges.

If you’re preparing a dish of mixed vegetables, consider using yellow beets. Unlike red beets, they don’t bleed, so your dish will retain the colors of all the ingredients.

Katerina Whitley’s Around a Greek Table cookbook contains several great beet recipes. Or try this confetti beet salad. Or this hearty recipe.

Boiling beets calls for patience—they can take a while. Place whole, unpeeled beets in a large sauce pan, add water to cover, and cook until fork tender, which can take up to an hour, depending on size. Drain, rinse in cold water, and cool. The skins slip off easily by rubbing against your fingers. Slice, cube, or leave whole. Your choice.

Boiled beets can be eaten plain, but there are many tasty alternatives. For a tasty sweet and sour side dish, try Harvard beets. (Use canned beets to cut preparation time.)

To pickle beets, boil as above, then marinate in a mixture of vinegar, sugar, and spices. Here’s a good basic recipe. If you like pickled eggs, place shelled hard-boiled eggs in pickled beet liquid and refrigerate for at least twenty-four hours. Follow the National Center for Food Preservation Guide to safely can either plain or pickled beets.

Beets are naturally sweet, and roasting makes them even sweeter. Roast alone or add to a pan of mixed vegetables. Just peel, cut, and combine with chopped potatoes, carrots, cauliflower, winter squash, sweet potatoes—whatever you have on hand. Toss with olive oil and your favorite seasonings. Spread the mixture into a roasting pan and bake at 425° s for about 45 minutes, stirring every 10-15 minutes.

My favorite beet recipe is this beet burger by John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist. Around here, we like it so much we’ve tripled the size of our garden beet patch. I double the recipe and freeze the burgers in vacuum-sealed bags for hearty winter eating that lasts all the way to next year’s harvest. (Note: I’ve found it hard to get these patties to stick together, so I give the shredded beets an extra strong squeeze to remove excess liquid. If I still have trouble, I add some rolled oats to the mix.) They’re fabulous!

For a truly spectacular treat, try Barbara Pleasant’s beet raisins. Yep, you heard that right. They’re delish—a perfect salad topper.

It seems there’s no end to what you can do with beets.

Carole Coatesis a gardener and food preservationist, family archivist, essayist, poet, photographer, modern homesteader. You can follow her Mother Earth News blog posts here.You can also find Carole at Living on the Diagonalwhere she shares her take on life, including modern homesteading, food preparation and preservation, and travel as well random thoughts and reflections, personal essays, poetry, and photography.


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