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May 3, 2014

DICK ORTEZ: Seed to Table: Beets can't be beat pickled or in salads, stir fry or borscht

A popular cool season crop is beets. Mine are up and doing well; but that was not always the case.

Beets are my most difficult crop to get started because the seedlings are weak, and have a difficult time breaking through even slightly crusted soil. They are also very subject to wind and rain damage. Two practices have dramatically improved my success rate. First, I begin their sprouting process indoors by soaking the seeds for four to eight hours, draining, and then holding them in a cool place for a day or two before planting. Second, once in the ground, I keep the soil directly over them moist, which helps keep it soft.

The “common” table beet is just one member of the species Beta vultaris that we prize for food – others include the sugar beet, mangel, and Swiss chard. Using my frequent analogy, these are all like different breeds of cattle or dogs, with each having been selected from the same parent, but for different qualities. Swiss chard is a leafy green, mangel a livestock feed, sugar beet an alternative source of refined sugar, and the common beet a vegetable.  

Most sources suggest that the parent plant was a leafy green growing along the Mediterranean seaside, and was initially domesticated as early as 1,000 BC. The development of varieties prized for their roots has been traced to around 800 BC; it was a more carrot shaped root and white.  The red globe-shaped beet root popular today came much later – most likely the 1800’s AD.

The common beet can be eaten fresh, cooked fresh or pickled.  Pickled beets are one of my personal favorites; it was one of the products I made when I ran a commercial processing business. I eat them alone, diced up and mixed into leafy salads or cottage cheese, or finely chopped and mixed with cream cheese and sour cream to form a dip.

I also use fresh beets in salads; but am most fond of them in borscht - a marvelous soup made from beets, cabbage, carrots and potatoes. There are many variations of this Ukrainian/Russian dish, but I’ve not found a bad one yet.

From a nutrition standpoint, beet roots are rich in vitamins A and C, calcium, iron and dietary fiber. They also contain a lot of betanin and betaine (discussed in the last issue), both of which are reported to have antioxidant activity. In fact, most authorities suggest that the original domestication was not as a food but as a medicinal.

I also eat a lot of beet tops - some in salads, but mostly in stir-fry. I found it an excellent substitute for spinach long before I read of others’ similar observation. It is not surprising that beet greens and spinach have similar textures and flavors; they both belong to the same botanical family (Chenopodiaceae). However, be forewarned, beet greens will turn everything in your stir-fry red.

Richard A. "Dick" Ortez earned a doctorate degree from Creighton University in microbiology. During the past 40 years, he has taught elements of food science at the university and medical school levels, operated a café, and run a truck farm and food processing business. He writes the Seed to Table column at his farm near Glencoe and welcomes questions, comments and suggestions sent to raortez@provalue.net

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