Learn how to cultivate and prepare beets and carrots, and get information on popular varieties of these root vegetables, from ‘Chioggia’ and ‘Bull’s Blood’ beets to ‘Mokum’ carrots.
Brightly colored beets and carrots, so nutrient-dense, are mainstays of the gardener’s winter diet. You’ll find them side by side in cold-weather dishes and in the root cellar as well, although not on the same schedule.
Beets are the less cold-hardy of the two. In Maine, we can sow beets around Aug. 1, nine to 10 weeks before our fall frost date, and still have them mature in the garden before our first hard frost. Temperatures below 26 degrees Fahrenheit are likely to damage them, so out of the garden and into storage they go.
Beets keep well in sealed plastic bags in the refrigerator, or in a dark root cellar with a temperature just above freezing and at about 90 percent humidity. Of all the storage crops, beets are the most likely to lose moisture and become a bit spongy, but even spongy beets are perfectly nutritious and delicious to eat.
Large storage-beet varieties, such as ‘Bull’s Blood’ and ‘Winter Keeper’ (sometimes called ‘Lutz Green Leaf’), are best to grow for longer keeping, but you might also try ‘Chioggia,’ an Italian variety with a bull’s-eye pattern inside. Golden beets, with their beautiful orange skins and yellow flesh, are popular with some cooks, partly because they don’t bleed. They do have a different flaw, however: They oxidize and thus turn brown when cut, especially if grated and used raw. (Simple Carrot Recipe: Beet and Carrot Boats began as a trio that included grated golden beets, which were gorgeous — but only for a minute.) Because raw beets are not tender, serve them raw only if grated or thinly sliced. Grated or shredded beet salads are popular, and you can make canapés from thin beet rounds spread with goat cheese.
Cooking beets is a little tricky, because the nutrients that give them their fine color are soluble in water, which means their nutrients may vanish in boiling water. Roasting works best to prevent color and nutrient loss and concentrate flavor, and is hands-off cooking time. Pressure-cooking will shorten cooking time and preserve nutrients; medium to large beets need only 12 to 15 minutes. Steaming beets will preserve most of their nutrients and color, too, or you can add beets to soups, such as a hearty borscht — so good on a cold winter night, especially if cooked with kielbasa or chunks of slab bacon.
Carrots will tolerate more cold than beets will, and in mild climates, you can simply cover them with hay or straw to protect them during winter, digging them whenever you need them (as long as the ground isn’t frozen). At our place in Maine, we’ve sown carrots in August — about nine weeks before our first frost — and then stored them right in the ground in a cold frame packed with straw, or in an unheated, plastic-covered greenhouse. Because of our severe winter climate, we add a second layer of protection in the greenhouse — a spun-bonded, polyester floating row cover, held a foot above the ground on wire wickets.
The best part: Carrots will turn candy-sweet after the first few frosts because the cold, in-soil storage will cause their starches to convert to sugars. For us, they are at their absolute finest from November through February, crisp and crunchy and as sweet as orange Popsicles.
You can also store carrots in a refrigerator (in sealed plastic bags) or a cellar, where they will keep for months. If grown in the ground and left there, they will start to regrow in mid-February (sooner in warmer climates), sending out small, furry roots along their sides. By the month’s end, they’ll have begun to lose flavor and sweetness.
If carrots are a favorite with your family, you can avoid a carrot gap by sowing a new crop around the beginning of December in a minimally heated greenhouse, or about a month later in an unheated one or a cold frame. Either way, you’ll harvest a brand new carrot crop in March. Just don’t sow this spring crop before November, lest the carrots bolt to seed in spring. The best carrot variety for winter harvest is ‘Napoli.’ For a spring crop, plant ‘Mokum’ or ‘Nelson.’ I recommend all three for their excellent flavor.
A bowl of winter-sweetened raw carrots is a familiar sight on our table this time of year. These sugary carrots go with us to potlucks and to meetings (where they trump the coffee cake).
Don’t disparage any big, fat, gnarly carrots left in your February cellar. They’ll still be full of flavor and fine for roasting, as in the recipe at right. Put them in every stew and alongside every pot roast, pork butt or honey-baked chicken. Or, grate them and mix with a little mayonnaise and some raisins to turn them into a salad or a sunny sandwich filling.
The rich colors of beets and carrots indicate that they’re packed with valuable nutrients. Red fruits and vegetables, including beets, are generally rich sources of lycopene and anthocyanins, two important antioxidants. Orange and yellow fruits and vegetables tend to be high in beta carotene, which the body uses to manufacture vitamin A. They’re also good sources of folate.
Though the snow may lay thickly atop the garden, these colorful winter storage vegetables will nourish and sustain you quite well.
Esteemed garden writer Barbara Damrosch farms and writes with her husband, Eliot Coleman, at Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine. She is the author of The Garden Primer and, with Coleman, of The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.