Aristotle wrote about them. So did the Ancient Romans. They’re even part of Napoleon’s legacy. Used as medicine, animal fodder, an aphrodisiac, and–of course–food, beets are a storied and scrumptious vegetable boasting an earthy sweetness, buttery texture, and rich coloring in shades of deepest ruby, golden yellow, and purple-and-white candy-cane stripes.
Read on to learn the fascinating history of the humble beet, its health-boosting properties, and our tips on how you can enjoy this versatile root this spring. And, next time you’re at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, you can visit our friends Jaime Farms and pick up some reds and goldens!
Background & History
People have been consuming beets for thousands of years. Wild beets, which grew along Mediterranean shores, were eaten by ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Interestingly, before the Romans cultivated beets to eat their roots, people exclusively ate the greens. The fall of the Roman Empire brought beets further northward in Europe. There, beets were used first for animal fodder and only later for human consumption.
A groundbreaking discovery in the 18th century and an international war in the 19th century catapulted beet cultivation into the vast cross-continental production of beets–specifically, sugar beets–that exists today. In 1747, German chemist Andreas Marggraf discovered how to extract sugar from beets. His student, Franz Karl Achard, developed methods to economize sugar production from beets, effectively establishing the commercial sugar beet industry. During the Napoleonic Wars, the British blockade of cane sugar to Europe led to greater popularity of beet sugar.
European colonists first brought beets to the U.S., and American production of beet sugar began here in California in the late 19th century. Beets were also grown in American gardens starting in the 19th century, and they continue to flourish in diverse topographies across the country.
Characteristics & Types
Beets are rich in manganese and folate, a nutrient shown to help prevent birth defects and bolster the fight against heart disease and anemia. A high fiber content helps moderate your intestinal tract and blood sugar and blood cholesterol levels. Beet greens are a hearty source of Vitamins K, A, and C and riboflavin, a key player in keeping red blood cell production healthy.
Beets come in a large range of colors, patterns, and sizes. Some of the different types of beets you can see at your local farmers market include:
Red: What probably comes to mind when you think of beets: rich, ruby red flesh; sweet, earthy, and tender; excellent for juicing.
Golden: Buttery color; sweet, mild flavor; great in salads.
di Chioggia: Striking, striped red-and-white flesh; smooth, sweet flavor; bright, tasty green tops; beautiful sliced raw in salads or lightly roasted.
Blankoma: White color; delicate and tender bulb; best enjoyed roasted.
Tips & How to Enjoy
Look for firm beets with fresh, bright greens and smooth skins with no bruising. Beet greens from young, smaller roots are best; you can sauté or steam as you would spinach. The greens do not keep well, but the roots will last up to ten days when refrigerated.
To enjoy, wash carefully and cook with the skins on, so the nutrients and color don’t bleed out. You can boil, steam, or microwave beets, but we prefer to roast them: roasting concentrates the flavor and color of beets and caramelizes their natural sugars. After cooking, the skins will easily slip off.
Beets are delicious in juice, salads, mashes, and soup (borscht, anyone?), but to celebrate the sunny flavors of Southern California, why not try a beet, citrus, and avocado salad with California lemons, grapefruits, avocados, and beets from the farmers market? Give it a spin, and let us know how it tastes. See you at the Market!
Beet, Citrus, and Avocado Salad
By Martha Rose Shulman, New York Times
This is a beautiful salad of contrasting flavors and textures. The juicy, acidic grapefruit plays off the earthy beets and the creamy, nutty avocado.
For the dressing:
2 tablespoons lemon or lime juice
1 teaspoon cumin seeds, lightly toasted and ground
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon walnut oil
2 tablespoons canola oil
For the salad:
1 bunch beets (about 1 pound), scrubbed and roasted
1 pink grapefruit
1 medium-size or large ripe but firm Hass avocado, sliced
2 tablespoons slivered fresh basil
1. Mix together the lemon or lime juice, the ground cumin seeds, salt, pepper, and Dijon mustard. Whisk in the walnut oil and canola oil.
2. Peel the roasted beets, and slice or cut in wedges. Toss with 2 tablespoons of the dressing.
3. Cut away both ends of the grapefruit so that it sits flat on your work surface. Cut the skin and pith completely away from the fruit, following the natural curve of the fruit from top to bottom. Hold the grapefruit in your hand over a bowl to catch the juice, and cut away each segment from between the membranes.
4. Arrange the beets in the center of a platter, and surround with the grapefruit and avocado slices. Drizzle on the remaining dressing, and drizzle any grapefruit juice in the bowl over the grapefruit and avocado. Sprinkle on the basil, and serve.
Yield: Serves four.
You can read more about beets here: