Veggie of the Week - Beet
sponsored by Coleman Farms
It's still Winter, as the recent cold and more recent wet weather reminds us. Winter is a good time for root vegetables: hereabouts, they thrive in the cooler weather, and they're useful in a variety of warming dishes. They tend to have a problematic image, being considered difficult to prepare, smelly, maybe, associated with want, or just plain wierd. Like practically anything else, it's mostly true if you're willing to overlook quite a bit in their favor. Beets, for example, can be difficult to prepare because you've got to think two hours ahead in order to get them cooked. They're associated with want because in certain times and places they constituted a major part of poorer people's diet, and the same or very similar roots were fed to livestock. They can be smelly because some of them, members of the Brassica family, contain sulphur compounds. And, to the uninitiated, they can be wierd.
I remember as a very young child, and as it happened one with a very sick stomach, being repeatedly urged by a well-meaning waitress to eat some mashed parsnips. If only it had been potatoes, enveloping me with their starchy, slightly nutty steam, but no, I was confronted by a yellowish, somewhat stringy mess with a strong odor mixing carrot and creosote. My stomach won out.
Some time ago we had a column which touched on beets. Today we'll concentrate on them. Think "beet" and we usually visualize something dark red about the size of a baseball, hard or soft, depending; but they come in lots of shapes, sizes and colors. You can find striped beets (think of nested white and red spheres), orange beets, white ones.... These tend to be smaller than a hardball, and at the Farmers' Market the typical red beet also tends to run small, having been harvested younger than supermarket ones. You can even find 'baby' beets, about the size of a pecan or walnut. Look for beets with the leaves attached. The leaves can be used to assess freshness: if the leaves look fresh, the beet has been recently harvested. Furthermore, if the leaves look nice, eat them. If you get baby beets, you can use the leaves in a salad; otherwise cook them as a green - they interchange with Chard.
Boiled is the standard way to cook beets, and this can take up to two hours. It's such a fag, apparently, that in London markets you'd be more likely to buy beets, ready-cooked, from a beet man than to find them fresh. If you decide to boil beets, don't peel them first, and leave a couple of inches of the stems on, to prevent the beet bleeding into the cooking water. Another nice way to cook beets is to roast (or 'bake') them in an oven, much as you would a potato, at about 350 degrees. This gives a softer texture and somewhat more developed flavor, changing the rather glossy sweetness of the boiled article into something richer, with suggestions of nut and more earthness, akin to the difference between a beaujolais and a cabernet.
Cooked either way, the peels slip right off after the beets cool. Once you've got your cooked beet, you can do a lot of things with it - dice it or slice it and use in salads, pickle it and eat it on bread and butter, add it to stews, make beet soup or borshch (or barszcz), use it in veggieburgers or (so I've heard) slice it and fry it*, possibly as a Spam® substitute.
This isn't so far fetched as it may sound: the sugar in beets will caramelize when slowly braised, leaving a sweet brown (against lighter colored beets) coating not unlike what you might find on similarly cooked bacon or Spam®. The beet inside will taste different, sweet, earthy, vegetable but definitely not a green one. It's a flavor that mixes well with other vegetables as well as animal products, and you'll find recipes, or meals, which use beets as accompaniment for everything from eggs (fried, hard boiled in salad) to haggis.
If you get baby beets, you'll probably want to boil them, too (but it won't take nearly two hours) and use them as a side dish, or in salad, either simple or, for a sweet and sour effect, pickled - that is, soaked in something acid, which might be vinegar, spiced or not, or vinegar and orange juice. You can of course do similar things with larger beets, sliced, which can be very decorative in a green salad, the darker kinds of beets showing nicely against a light-colored lettuce, like a Bibb, while an orange or white beet will contrast with darker lettuces such as Vulcan or Perilla. The lighter-colored beets won't 'run' as obviously as the dark red ones, which may be worth considering when designing your meal.
Beets can be used raw. They're occasionally eaten raw, in small pieces and quantities, in green salads, where, in any case, I think they call for a bit of digestive adventurousness. The main use for raw beets is in juicing, where their color and sweetness are highly appreciated. Raw beets can have a somewhat astringent quality, not apparent in the cooked vegetable, which is masked by juicing together with vegetables such as carrot, celery or lovage.
Beets have traditionally been considered a 'healthy' vegetable, partly, apparently because their red color was interpreted to mean they're sympathetic with the blood, liver, kidneys, the red things inside us, and in particular, that they were an outstanding source of iron. Beets are a good thing to eat, but not for this reason. They're a source of folates, they've got lots of fiber, and they contain a variety of phytochemicals and antoxidants that apparently help guard against various diseases. Although, like many other root vegetables, they have quite a high sugar content, they also apparently have a high glycemic index, suggesting that their sugar is slowly released during digestion.
Beets can be noticeably high in oxalic acid - again it seems to depend on growing conditions - which is something people sensitive to this should be aware of.
One of the more interesting beet phytochemicals is betaine, which seems to act as a mild psychotropic by boosting serotonin production in the brain. Serotonin is important in memory and regulating mood, and is the brain chemical acted on by Prozac, for example, which makes more effective use of existing serotonin, rather than increasing its production.
*This was a fixture at breakfast in a Manilla messhall shortly after liberation in 1945.
Thanks to the US taxpayer and Centers for Disease Control for this week's photo